Clearing the air

When John Major faced a growing tide of dissent and trouble within his own party, he famously told his critics to “put up or shut up”. It worked, to the extent that they put up, he won, and the air was cleared. Well, somewhat.

Now Ming Campbell has spoken of a referendum on our continued EU membership. Is this a “put up or shut up” for our times?

The UK has a longstanding problem with the EU. Most of the press detest it, and are full of anti-EU propaganda. Many politicians have a problem, too: there’s the xenophobic fringe who openly want to come out, and the two main parties both face two ways on the issue. Only the libdems (Campbell’s party) are more or less unambiguously in favour, and would prefer to improve what’s wrong, as opposed to whinge about it yet veto any attempt to fix it.

Apart from being a general scapegoat and whipping-boy, there’s a particular problem concerning the EU: the new treaty, designed to make it work as the much bigger organisation it has become since the accession of the new Eastern European members. This has been labelled by some as a “constitution”, and thus something on which we should have a referendum.

Now, I don’t claim to follow the merits or defects of the proposed treaty itself. Neither, I feel confident in saying, do most of its critics. Nor is anyone (on either side) making an effort to educate us about it: all we hear is argument over whether there should be a UK referendum. Note, not an EU-wide referendum. Nor an England referendum, or indeed other individual countries. But a UK one.

Should we have a referendum on a treaty noone understands? There’s no way people would vote on the obscure issue of the treaty. The campaign would (will) be dominated entirely by FUD, and might very well be lost, regardless of the issues. As has happened in some other EU countries where referenda on EU issues have been held.

No, if there is a referendum, it must be on a question on which people have at least some clue. Our continued membership is such a question. As far as I can see, it’s the only such question on the EU we could have a referendum on (well, maybe Euro currency membership, but noone is asking that). Ming Campbell is right on this one.

Should there be any referendum? That’s a more interesting question. We don’t have a tradition of referenda: in fact the only precedent for a UK referendum was thirty years ago, on exactly the same question. And there’s little doubt the outcome will be the same now, if we have another. The purpose of a referendum would be put up or shut up, and could clear the air, for a while.

I doubt that either referendum will happen. But Campbell was very right to moot this. For his own party, it deals with a tricky problem: either they support a nonsense referendum on a particular treaty, or they get portrayed as conspiring against the people to railroad the treaty through. And if the nonsense referendum does happen, having this alternative on the table will stand a chance of broadening the debate and (somewhat) clearing the air.


Posted on September 14, 2007, in EU, politics, uk. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for your comment at my site.

    As George Monbiot pointed out, the treaty would change almost nothing, so if a referendum gives a sheen of democracy to something that’s basically been negotiated between businessmen behind closed doors then it will have been very counterproductive.

    However, I think the opposite would happen; there’d be a “no” vote, but most of the treaty would go ahead anyway. There’s the Europhobic Right, to be sure, but most of the opposition to the treaty in France (back when it was called a Constitution) came from the Left. Incidentally, a referendum was a 2005 election pledge.

  1. Pingback: Wrong question, right answer? « niq’s soapbox

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