Vince Cable: we will force a referendum vote in Parliament

Tomorrow the Liberal Democrats will table an amendment to the Government’s parliamentary motion proposing the Queen’s Speech. Our amendment calls for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

This does not signal a change in our party’s attitude towards the Europe. We remain constructively pro-European, but we see this referendum as an opportunity to have a proper debate about the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU.

Over thirty five years as a member state, we have seen the EU widen both its membership and share sovereignty from Mrs Thatcher’s Single European Act through to a succession of treaties agreed by both Conservative and Labour governments. In truth, the EU has changed beyond recognition from the EEC that Britain originally joined in 1973.

No-one under the age of fifty – including the current Foreign Secretary – has had a say on Britain’s membership of the EU. An in-out referendum would give people a vote on the broad issue rather than a narrower referendum on the Reform Treaty and allow us to promote the positive benefits of membership.

By doing so, we can also draw the poison from the debate about Europe’s future.

The Conservative Party promoted closer European integration – without referendums – while in office. In opposition they have indulged in the worst kind of anti-European populism, calling for referendums on individual treaties to mask their own divisions and the wish of many of their own MPs to leave the European Union altogether.

Similarly, the Labour Party has been less than honest. Since 1997 they too have given away powers, but refused to engage the public in a proper debate about the direction of the EU. Gordon Brown appears scared to make the case for Europe, though we hope that he will accept our challenge to do so.

We are not uncritical supporters of the European Union. We want it to concentrate its energies on genuine cross-border issues like the threat of climate change and promoting of free trade with countries outside its borders, It should also reform many of its own internal policies and practices.

However, the EU has brought a period of unparalleled peace and prosperity to Europe and it has successfully integrated new member states that were once dictatorships in Southern and Eastern Europe. The Liberal Democrats believe that Britain’s best interests will be served by being positive members of the Union, while seeking to improve it.

We are ready to make the positive case for Europe in a proper public debate about our membership, and we trust the people to make a decision about whether we should stay in or get out. We must flush our opponents out of their bunkers and challenge them to make clear their positions on this fundamental issue for the future of our country.

Vince Cable is the Acting Liberal Democrat leader and MP for Twickenham.

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This entry was posted in News, Op-eds and Parliament.


  • Geoffrey Payne 11th Nov '07 - 11:37am

    It is true that when people say they are opposed to the European treaty and they want a referendum, what they are really saying is that they want to leave the EU. Becuase if you ask them specifically what it is about the treaty they object to, they rarely give a specific and accurate answer. Instead it is a general antipathy towards the EU; it has too much power (but not so much power that people bother to vote).
    My instincts are pro-European, but public opinion is so hostile that I cannot see the European project progressing any further.
    The hostility to the EU is similar to hostility to governments and democracy in general. The turnouts for general elections, particularly amongst young people – despite being better educated (at least from an academic point of view) makes me wonder what the tipping point is for democracy, where it is no longer viable.
    So yes, I think a referendum on the EU may well produce a “No”, and that referendum will be at the instigation of the most pro-European party of all. The irony!
    I hope someone puts forward some good arguments against this.

  • Geoffrey, you are being far too pessimistic. The arguments against leaving the EU are so overwhelming that even the readers of the Sun and Mail would be unpersuaded by a ‘No’ vote campaign. Sure, the default option is to grumble about or ridicule the EU, even to vote UKIP at EU elections, but the majority of British people are lazy and conservative and will not vote for the appalling uncertainty that would be the consequence of leaving Europe.

  • In my experience, on the doorstep, the type of people who are most against Europe either never vote or are sufficiently old to be likely to be leaving not just the EU, in the near future.

  • Jon Underwood 11th Nov '07 - 1:30pm

    Why not totally defuse the issue and support a referendum on both membership and the treaty? Because we believe the second would be lost and see us ejected from the EU just like the Netherlands and France were… at least in the parallel universe some of the more EU-addicted amongst us inhabit.

  • I think this proposal is denying people a real choice, staying in EU but turning down the treaty. If this proposal is accepted, it forces many people who are against the treaty but for EU to make a second best choice, for which they won’t be thankful to Lib Dems.

  • Benjamin Mathis 11th Nov '07 - 2:49pm

    A referendum on the treaty is unworkable – which is basically why the Tories are so vocally calling for one in opposition.

    The public cannot and will not be brought into a sensible debate on the issues in the treaty at this late stage. Too much Daily Mail-flavoured water has passed under the bridge for that. If the government had negotiated the treaty openly and honestly and with the intention of holding a referendum all along we might be able to get somewhere – as it is, people would vote on the basis either of their opinion of the EU wholesale, or of lies in the Eurosceptic press that bare no resemblance to the actual treaty.

    Furthermore, a No vote on the treaty would mean what exactly? Which part of the treaty are you rejecting? Does it give too much away? or not enough? Or do you just want out? People should be asked to vote on actions, not documents.

  • This is an irrelevance. It won’t be carried in the Commons and won’t win the party a single extra vote. A referendum in order to retain the status quo? Feels a bit desperate.

  • Benjamin Mathis 11th Nov '07 - 3:09pm

    A referendum would give the British people a chance to have a direct say on the UK’s relationship with Europe. We haven’t had that in my lifetime, just lots of bitching from both sides of the debate in all parties.

    Putting that to rest for a few years would be anything but the status quo.

  • Good on you Vince!

    Bring it on!

  • Peter Bancroft 11th Nov '07 - 7:07pm

    I suggested the referendum on the EU policy a week or so before Ming declared it, but I’m not sure what we stand to gain by bringing the referendum issue to such unnecessary prominence – our rhetoric on the EU has been sadly lacking since Ashdown days, and this risks complicated the question of whether we’re in favour or against.

    I think that our position is a sensible and well thought out one, but we should have left it as a response.

  • passing tory 11th Nov '07 - 8:02pm

    This is a simply ridiculous suggestion. As Cable himself says:

    “We are not uncritical supporters of the European Union. We want it to concentrate its energies on genuine cross-border issues like the threat of climate change and promoting of free trade with countries outside its borders, It should also reform many of its own internal policies and practices.”

    How on earth does an “In or Out” referendum address this point? Either people vote to stay in, which will be taken as a sign that everything is hunky-dory, or we vote to come out in which case the government is going to be put in a very difficult position.

    I am sorry to say this, but the proposal for this referendum is political manoevering of the very worst kind. It is designed to stir up trouble rather than solve the problems that need addressing.

  • This call for a referendum on the EU has not exactly grasped the public imagination. The public want a much looser relationship with the EU. We are being so elitist; “you don’t what’s good for you, you are brainwashed by the mail etc (but we are immune to media brainwashing, you plebs)” etc.

    If its all or nothing, it could be nothing. The ‘reform from inside’ argument is dishonet.

  • another point to make here is about the various european luminiaries who claim the treaty is similar to the constitution – if the press made up the quotes, ok fine. if not, then people are right to be concerned.

    As for red lines.. surely we don’t trust Gordon Brown’s word?

  • passing tory 11th Nov '07 - 9:39pm

    Paul Greogry,

    What you say may be true but it just illustrates the underlying problem. The Lib Dems are putting forward this referendum not because it is good for the country, or because it would help the country’s position in Europe, but because it suits their own party agenda. That is not responsible politics.

    As the treaty sets out the way that Europe will develop, this is the time to make the case for the changes that are needed to get the EU to the point where it actually does what the Lib Dem policy paper on this states – i.e. have decisions made at the lowest level possible – rather than the over centralisation of power in Brussels.

    An “In or Out” referendum cannot achieve this. A referendum on the reform Treaty just about could. Would it be a disaster if the reform Treaty was rejected? Not if it results in a more realistic EU in the long run.

  • Paul Griiffiths 11th Nov '07 - 9:53pm

    On the contrary, Passing Tory, it is very much in this country’s interests to address the issue of EU membership. I submit that no progress on reforming the EU in the direction that Lib Dems want can succeed unless and until the UK is (re-)committed to its future.

  • I have been thinking about what Anonymous at 6. said about denying people a real choice between staying in the EU but rejecting the Treaty. As I said above, I don’t think the British public are stupid enough to vote to leave the EU, but nor do I think that there is any point in having a referendum on the Treaty because it is much too complex a document to be able to make a yes/no decision on. When we joined the EEC we signed up to a set of rules and a constitutional framework which governed what the organisation did at the time, and our membership was subsequently ratified at the 1975 referendum. However, there is a real problem subsequently with mission creep and a consequent democratic deficit, most importantly when Mrs Thatcher signed up to the single market because the structural changes to the organisation contingent upon that decision meant that we were no longer part of the same sort of grouping that we had agreed to in 1975. Probably the same thing happened at Maastricht but it all got a bit too complicated for me at that point. And that is the problem: an enlarged EU requires changes in its rules to allow it to continue to function effectively, but can anyone who is not a constitutional lawyer make an informed judgement about the details of such changes? And conversely, British politicians have never said clearly to the electors at each relevant stage: this is the sort of organisation you agreed to in 1975, but now it is going to change into a different organisation – do you agree? And we are probably too far down the road now to be able to rewind any of the changes that have already been made.

  • I think a lot of the respect the party gained under Charles Kennedy was owing to its principled approach to issues such as the Iraq War.

    In contrast, this seems like a cynical political manoeuvre. It’s ironic that Vince Cable’s post refers to the Tories “calling for referendums … to mask their own divisions”. Surely masking party divisions is precisely the rationale for our own policy!

    In any case, there is no way we can “force a referendum” on EU membership. All the other parties have to say is that no one is arguing that we should leave the EU. Then they can quite consistently vote against this daft amendment.

  • passing tory 12th Nov '07 - 4:31am


    I shouldn’t have to go through the calculations from the various perspectives. If you genuinely can’t see the Lib Dem self-interest here then let me know and I will spell it out in detail.

    But I could pretty much write this evening’s Lib Dem press-releases now – whichever way the amendment vote goes (and let’s face it, the chances of it carrying are vanishingly small).

  • I’m pretty much with passing Tory on this it’s a cheap stunt that does nothing to deal with people’s legitimate concerns over the direction Europe is taking.

    People in general want to be in, but want to feel they can actually influence what’s going on and abandon some of the EU’s more ludicrous shibboleths like the CAP.

    There’s something ironic that on the day the party announces all its incumbent MEPs have stitched up their reselections – we call for a democratic mandate.

    Well we could start with our own Euro MPs…

  • Great article!

    Are you guys brave enough leave it up, now that it’s attracted attention in 2013, or will you put it down the memory hole? I hope the former — it’s available from the Internet Archive either way, and it would come across as intellectually so much more honest not to try and hide it.

  • Martin Lowe 13th May '13 - 7:44pm

    By doing so, we can also draw the poison from the debate about Europe’s future.

    Oh, Vince.

    I used to think that too. But this weekend I was explicitly told by a UKIP supporter that they will never let the matter rest even if there is an overwhelming ‘In’ vote.

    So an in-or-out referendum will be a waste of time and money. Farage and his ilk may take a short pause, but they’ll soon be back spreading misinformation, half-truths and outright lies.

  • Indeed. Would never catch anyone who is pro-EU spreading misinformation, half-truths and outright lies after all.

    This is a wise and good policy, after all the name of the party is apparently ‘Liberal Democrats’. It is most democratic to permit a plebiscite on EU membership, and without a doubt a number of the practices of the European Union are illiberal and in desperate need of reform. The current EU structure and the manner in which it operates is disturbing, it is also way too distant from the electorate to have real democratic legitimacy. I struggle to see a case for the European Union as it stands today, there are many, many things that need to be resolved.

    We need a balanced view from all sides, not the UKIP vehemence that the EU is the root of all evil, not MEPs who seem to completely forget that they were elected to represent the UK within Europe rather than Europe in the UK, not former commissioners whose pensions can be stripped from them if they stop acting in the interests of the EU, nor former Directors of Communication for Pro-EU pressure groups telling us that the UK will immediately become a 3rd world country if it leaves the EU.

    The level of propaganda from the EU is quite horrifying at times and is a match for the misinformation spread by the more extreme eurosceptics. It doesn’t change that both groups have some really good points to make and our membership of the EU as it stands right now isn’t a good one, While the majority may accept the current state of affairs it would be right and proper for those who are pro-EU to inform a wider audience of the fact that the UK will, inevitably, be pulled into closer integration with the other EU states at some point in the not too distant future. There is no status quo, closer integration by stealth is an ongoing process and the public as a whole should know this. Not everyone reads Barroso’s speeches discussing EU-wide federalisation. People must know the good, the bad, the ugly, and the future that the president of the Commission wants to legislate for.

  • The level of propaganda from the EU is quite horrifying at times

    What propaganda, precisely?

    I’d hardly call the multi-page PDFs buried on the Eurostat website ‘propaganda’, especially when they are roundly ignored by the British media.

  • Certainly.

    How about these free comics for children?

    Jump start

    Everyone deserves a second chance. Four lives, four journeys. In this new comic book Jump start, find out how Alex, Nataline, Ivana and Dimitra managed to change the course of their lives. Discover how these four Europeans took on a new challenge, thanks to the support they received from the European Social Fund. Following the success of the comic book Take two, published in 2010 in 23 languages, the European Commission now brings you the second edition in the series. Inspired by true stories, these adventures are illustrated by four talented comic book artists— Maud Millecamps, Alexandre Tefenkgi, Vanyda and You — and are based on a text by Rudi Miel

    ‘Inspired by true stories’ – doesn’t really breed confidence that the links are anything but tenuous.

    Perhaps you’d prefer Captain Euro and the Twelve Stars Euro Team?

    Looks like propaganda, shamelessly targeted at children, to me?

  • @Democrat – you are kidding I take it?

    It is propaganda to suggest that “Alex in Wales” can avail of aid money to get a business kick-started, is it? If so our (UK) government must be a master propagandist, mustn’t it?

  • George Lees 17th May '13 - 6:53pm


  • I am horrified at the level of propaganda from the EU.

    A cartoon character dating from the 20th century who never appeared in any comics, and a couple of graphic pamphlets only available from the European Union website.

    Truly horrifying – if you’re a thin-skinned lunatic looking for an easy excuse to be horrified.

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