Thursday 24 January 2013

Europe, referendums and delusions.

In his memoirs, published 1979, Jo Grimond, the most impressive  of the post war leaders of the Liberal party, who had served under Montgomery in he liberation of Europe, wrote:

It is... no service to Churchill's memory to suggest that but for him we might have surrendered. And, of course, once America joined in the war, let alone Russia, we were bound to win.  If anything is remarkable, it is remarkable that it took so long.  Yet we came out of the war being told that we had saved the world by a unique act of courage against fearful odds.  We naturally became convinced that the world must see that we were natural leaders of the West entitled by our deeds of valour and skill to rest on oars as far as work was concerned  and owed a debt, indeed a living, by our neighbours.(Memoirs, p99)

Nearly 70 years after the war's end such hubris is still around and it fuels David Cameron's speech.  The wonder is that our European partners show us so much patience and tolerance.  We can only hope that Cameron has privately told the other European leaders not to take any notice of his arrogant  posturing: that it is purely for home consumption and that he doesn't really mean it.

Clearly the Tories have serious domestic difficulties over our membership of the EU, with their irrational "Little Englander" right snapping at their leaders' heels and UKIP breathing down their necks, but they have only themselves to blame.  Since Conservative prime ministers Macmillan tried and failed , and Heath succeeded, in negotiating our membership  they have never given it unequivocal support.  Labour  have nothing to be proud of either.  Having re-negotiated the terms and held a referendum in the 70s (which voted to stay in by a ratio of  two to one) they campaigned to withdraw in the 80s, and their current position is befogged with evasions.  For both these parties Europe has been a scapegoat to blame rather than an ideal to support.

Only the Liberals have been enthusiastic supporters of the European ideal  from its inception, but our voice has been drowned by the timidness of the other parties and the violent opposition of the overwhelming majority of the press, the owners of which (the now disgraced Murdoch, Conrad Black recently released from prison in Canada, and Lord Rothermere) are all violently anti the EU.  However, the Liberal Democrat leadership is not blameless.  For some reason or other we have at some stage promised an In-Out referendum.  Now Nick Clegg is trying to cloud the issue by saying this would only take place if there are significant changes in the Treaty.

Even with this reservation this is a nonsense. We are a parliamentary democracy and we elect our representatives, at least in theory  respected citizens whose judgement we trust, to make these decisions having pondered all the arguments.  The recent débâcle of the AV referendum shows how difficult it is to conduct a mature and balanced debate. The fact that, if it takes place, this will be the second time we have renegotiated the terms and then had a referendum, shows that referendums do not settle things "once and for all."  The argument that many (David Cameron?) were not alive or  old enough to vote when the last referendum was held is specious: we do not hold referendums for every generation to give their opinions on Magna Carta, the Bill of rights, or whether or not cinemas should be allowed to open on Sundays, (the only other issue on which referendums have been held throughout  the UK).


  1. If you believe in the parliamentary democracy argument then either you think that the Scottish parliament has the moral right to declare independence without a referendum or that a line is drawn somewhere between the sovereignty of the people and representative democracy. If it is the latter, then you agree with David Cameron on the principle, you just disagree on where that line is drawn.

  2. Scotland joined, or was joined, to England on the decision of the government of the time rather than by a referendum. If a majority in the Scottish parliament, elected on the premise of independence, wanted to leave, then they should. Perhaps as a safeguard (and here my Liberalism becomes sullied) the joint monarch, as in the struggle over the powers of the Lords in 1911, might demand a second general election.