Constitution or amending treaty? Rationalisation of institutions or a major change in our relationship with Europe? “Properly protected as a country to make our own decisions” or a “major shift of power”? Too far? Just far enough? Or not even close? Europe’s leaders may have agreed on a new European treaty, but citizens and politicians in the UK are bitterly divided.
The contents of the new treaty having been decided for us, the big question now revolves around whether to have a referendum to approve the treaty, or whether Parliament should decided. Normally, this would be a straightforward matter. The UK has never ratified a Treaty through a referendum; the 1975 referendum was not related to a particular treaty. There is no constitutional need to hold a referendum; indeed, referendums have no place in the British constitution, which is a representative democracy in which parliament is sovereign. (Unless I’m mistaken – and let me know if I am – the 1975 referendum was the first and only nationwide referendum the UK). Thus it is perfectly acceptable and indeed normal that a new treaty should go parliament to be ratified.
And yet to avoid a referendum would be wrong, for four reasons: it would be undemocratic; counter-productive; possibly self-interested; and a missed opportunity.
Under normal circumstances, it would be perfectly democratic for parliament to ratify the treaty – as explained above, we are a representative democracy that elects parliamentarians to take these decisions for us. But in this particular instance, every one of those parliamentarians was elected promising to offer the British people a referendum (at least, the three national parties, which between them constitute 95 per cent of the House, gave such a promise). Thus parliament’s mandate does not stretch to the ratification of a constitutional treaty for the European Union. On the contrary, the election demonstrated an overwhelming demand for a referendum. Based on the convention (one might fairly call it a fiction, even a conceit) that votes express a will and a mandate for manifesto commitments, the vast bulk of voters expressed a desire for a referendum on any constitutional treaty.
The response from our leaders is that this is not a constitutional treaty. The original plan, set out in 2004, was for a European Constitution and all that that entailed. But it was rejected, and so Europe’s leaders have confined themselves to a mere tidying up exercise, an amending treaty to make the EU run more smoothly. Leaving aside for the moment whether or not this is poppycock, the fact remains that to many this appears less like a tidying up exercise than a tucking up exercise. It is clear that many EU governments wanted to incorporate as much of the old constitution as possible – in effect, the articles but not the name – and it is also clear that this is part of the ongoing constitutional process, even if it has been radically trimmed down. Within the perception of the people, it is essentially the same – albeit perhaps more modest – treaty and they expect to be consulted. If not, their vote in 2005 has been ignored; Parliament has found a way to weasel out on its promise to the people. This is exactly the sort of thing that undermines faith in and respect for politicians, parliament and indeed democracy.
This last is a very important point, because there is a nasty whiff of self-interest about the sudden freedom from the requirement to hold a referendum. It is widely believed that Tony Blair’s decision was one symptom of his famous “wobble”, when he also agreed to stand down after his third term. Blair never wanted a referendum, because he knew he would lose. The Tories wanted to win one, but there is a nervousness about reopening old wounds; like a mangy dog, the Conservative Party has a habit of picking at its sores. And for the Liberal Democrats, a European campaign risks diverting precious funds to a cause that is popular with the activists but will not yield greater power or any long-term benefit, yet risks positioning us more clearly than ever in the minority camp. Thus it may be that a referendum is in no politician’s interests (though it may be in the interests of the opposition to be seen to demand one that they don’t actually want). Whether or not this is in fact the case, it would be hugely damaging to politics in general in this country if voters believed that they had been denied a referendum because it was inconvenient to politicians, rather than for sound constitutional reasons.
Yet there is a fourth reason for holding a referendum, and one that has been largely ignored in the constitutional minutiae. A third of a century has passed since the last referendum, and that referendum was on a very different Community from the Union in which we now find ourselves. Political debate about this has failed; it is widely believed that politicians – even in the Conservative Party – are out of step with public opinion. The real questions of Europe are not debated in Parliament or by politicians in public; instead, debate revolves around the size of rebates and whether we should join the Euro now or later. These are proxy wars for the real debate that is being avoided: what is the role of the European Union? What are its limits? What should be the balance of power between the Union, its member states and the citizens at large? And what role does the UK want to play within both that debate and the future Europe? By avoiding this referendum we are once again sidestepping these issues.
Many in the political classes are terrified of the outcome of that debate (Europe has for too long been an elite-driven, top-down process). Yet as long as that debate is avoided, the underlying need for resolution will eat away at the heart of our politics.
So I say let us demand a referendum on Europe. Let us begin to have a proper debate about our and Europe’s future. We may not like the outcome of the debate, and we may not get the referendum result that we desire. But this is one of the most important issues in British politics today, and it is not being adequately addressed.
It is time to throw the pieces in the air and let them fall where they may. It is time to trust the people.