Slowly but surely the question of whether the UK should have an in/out referendum on its membership of the EU is creeping up the political agenda. Labour’s leadership has carefully left the option open without endorsing it. Behind the scenes voices in favour are becoming stronger. Is there a strong case for Labour advocating an in/out referendum? On balance, it is better to keep options open at this stage.
The arguments in favour split into the good, the bad and the ugly.
Firstly, let’s take a look at the good. Harold Wilson had a confirmatory referendum on our EEC membership in 1975. Almost two-thirds turned out and two-thirds voted in favour. Much has changed since then. While it’s simply not true that we thought we were only joining an economic union back in 1975, formal sovereignty has been further pooled and the EEC has both enlarged, deepened and is now the EU. The big changes came in the Single European Act in 1986. Given our opt-out from the Euro, the Maastricht Treaty was less directly significant. Maastricht will become more significant over time as the Eurozone becomes the de facto union.
So a great deal has changed and anyone born after 1957 has not had a say in a referendum on our membership. They have had a say in general elections and opportunities to vote for parties who wish to leave. They haven’t done so in any great numbers. Why should people have to choose between their views on Europe and, say, the NHS? Well, that’s the nature of democratic decision-making. You may like a party’s stance on education but not on immigration. You have to choose which is more important to you. Nonetheless, the changed character and fraying mandate of the original referendum decision are good arguments in favour of a referendum. They are not, however, decisive.
Before considering why, let’s have a quick look at the bad and ugly arguments. One of the bad arguments in favour is that it will ‘lance the boil’ of euroscepticism. It won’t. The original referendum didn’t. The original Scottish devolution referendum in 1979 defeat didn’t ‘lance the boil’ of devolution. And the successful devolution referendum didn’t ‘lance the boil’ of nationalism. Nor do I suppose the independence referendum will do so. Referendums can mobilise movements as much as dissipate them – especially if a mythology of betrayal, mendacity and unfairness of the actions of the other side springs out of it. It only seems to be progressives who lick their wounds after defeat.
Now for the ugly. One of the impulses behind suggesting that Labour goes for an in/out referendum is the political agony it will heap on David Cameron and the Conservatives. The idea is to split the UKIP-leaning vote away from the party. This argument just doesn’t work. If Labour goes for it, it is very likely that Cameron will do too. A ‘renegotiation’ referendum might be a compromise solution – but that is to begin down the path of exit anyway. Whichever option he chooses, it should deal with Cameron’s short-term ‘UKIP problem’ to the extent he has one. UKIP-sympathetic Tories could vote Conservative in 2015, knowing they will get a referendum vote in the next Parliament. They can have their cake and eat it.
The medium-term - ie the next Parliament – is different though. 1846 is the year that fills many Conservatives with dread. It is the year the Conservative party split over repeal of the Corn Laws. They were left out of power until the 1870s – these things stay with a party for a long time. Could the Conservatives similarly split over the EU?
While this may all seem dramatic and apocalyptic, there is no doubt the divides over the EU run far deeper in the Conservative party than in Labour. Could the party survive an EU in/out referendum and retain any semblance of unity? It is not beyond the realms of the imagination that there could be some political alignment on the right. Cleggites and Cameroons could unite into one bloc or party and the euro-rabid Conservatives and UKIP might similarly coalesce. This is all political science fiction but you can see why some Labour strategists might be tempted.
But there’s just one problem – our national interest. The naïve presumption seems to be that an in/out referendum would be resolved in favour of continuing our membership. This is not at all clear. At the moment there is a plurality in favour of exit. There is no knowing what circumstances we will face in the next Parliament – or indeed what circumstances the Eurozone will face. The anti-political elite atmosphere that pervades could well be still with us. It is not impossible to see a low turnout of somewhere in the region of 40 percent (the AV referendum was 42%) with a narrow victory for ‘out’. We’d be making a decision about the national interest on the basis of one in five voters. Is this what we really want? Is it really ‘democratic’?
What’s more, a Labour Government that went for this referendum would then have to spend its entire political energy on leaving the EU rather than concentrating on resolving our domestic challenges. We may still be facing enormous economic challenges in five, six or seven years’ time. Do we really want to create even more economic uncertainty in that context?
And Labour’s leaders believe that retaining membership on balance is in our national interest. They could be faced with choosing between our interest in, for argument’s sake, 2019 and a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum. There are times, especially in crisis, where the national interest conflicts with what seems like the democratic option – though in reality it is not. Politics is about resolving tensions and finding ways through incompatible choices. People might want to have their say on EU membership and expect economic stability. What is the democratic course? It’s far more complex than simply saying give the people a vote and disregard everything else in considering the best democratic outcome.
Sensibly, both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have both argued forcibly that the priority is to restore jobs and growth and questions over an in/out referendum are for another time. The time is likely to come but don’t bind yourself now. Ultimately, demands for the referendum may become impossible to resist. For now, there is time and political space. Act irresponsibly and the consequences could be severe. This is one of the moments when indecision is justified. Don’t play political games with the national interest.