Monday, 20 May 2013

The real Lib Dem position on an EU referendum

So, what with UKIP surging in the polls (despite having donors and elected representatives who are frequently misogynists and/or racists), the Tories imploding over an EU referendum (and comments which may or may not have been made by one of Cameron's chums) and the Lib Dems being asked about our manifesto "pledge" of an EU referendum, I've decided to cut through the spin and present an honest assessment of the Lib Dem position on an EU referendum:

Our position in brief

We're pro EU but we want an in-out referendum the next time there's a major transfer of powers from the UK to the EU (though we don't think that's ever going to happen). But we don't really want an in/out referendum either because we're scared we'd lose and we're not really entirely convinced about the merits of referendums for that matter.

Does this position sound barmy? Well, yes it is. But it does actually make sense for reasons which I will now explain.

Lib Dems like the EU

Yup, it's true. As a party we mainly tend to support the EU in principle - mainly because we're a rational bunch who look rationally at the realities of the situation (basically, to find the reality, just assume that it's the exact opposite of what the UK press tells you about the EU) and have worked out that, on balance, we get more from EU membership than we'd get from not having EU membership and that membership is the best thing for our national interest.

Plus, we're also traditionally internationalists who believe in different nations working together for their common interest and so naturally tend to support concepts like those behind the EU.

That doesn't mean that we don't recognise that there are problems with the EU which we'd like to change - in fact, most of our MEPs spend a lot of their time successfully pushing for changes in things like the Common Agricultural Policy - but we tend to take the view that we're better off in and that we should be working towards improving the EU rather than quitting it all together.

We're scared about admitting we like the EU

This is an ongoing problem with the Lib Dems. We have these wonderful principled, common sense positions  on various issues which are all backed up with detailed policy ...which we then promptly hide from site and never speak of in public in case it puts people off.

See, the fact is that all polls indicate that the majority (albeit a small majority) of people don't like the EU. Which, to be fair, isn't surprising when you consider the outright lies the British press prints about the EU on a non-stop basis.

And, despite the fact that there's a sizeable minority who do support EU membership (a minority which is much larger than the minority that votes for us, incidentally), we tend to be a bit scared, as a party, of admitting our real views on Europe in public in case we scare people away.

Though we're getting better at being honest and plain spoken about our views, there is still very much a tendency to try and dress up our policies, or use forms of wording, in a way that we hope won't alienate eurosceptics. Of course, no one believes this for a second, but it does explain why we have policies like an in/out referendum in the event of a future transfer of powers which we don't realistically think is ever going to happen.

We like democracy...

Referendums. Wonderful, right? We're a democratic party and a referendum on EU membership where we ask everyone what they think would be very democratic so we should support having a referendum and then campaign to stay in the EU during the referendum. Right?

...but we're not convinced a referendum would be democratic

We used to very much like the idea of referendums. In fact, for everything we weren't convinced we could some day win enough seats in parliaments to do, a referendum was the answer - exhibit A: a referendum on proportional representation.

But then in 2011 we had the AV referendum (which was not, I hasten to add, a referendum on proportional representation). And we lost. Humiliatingly.

This, in no small part, was thanks to the incompetence of the Yes campaign, but it was also a result of a campaign where the truth didn't get a word in edgeways. To give you an example, the No campaign made a big thing of their claim that AV would cost £250 million and kept on pushing that line right up until, and throughout, the day of the referendum itself. Yet, on the eve of the vote, David Blunkett, a prominent backer of the No campaign, came out and admitted the claim was a complete fabrication.

So, given how easy it apparently is for lies to be spread to distort the debate in a referendum, a lot of Lib Dems are no longer convinced that a referendum on the EU would lead to an informed choice based on the facts and think it's more likely that it might well be a decision based on lies and misinformation. Which is a big deal for us because we tend to think that the evidence overwhelmingly lies in favour of EU membership so anything that prevented the evidence from being heard could well result in a vote to leave the EU which we think would be bad for the UK.

We were opportunistic in opposition

When the Lisbon Treaty was up for debate in parliament, there were a lot of people who thought it should be put to a referendum. As a party, we might have voted for a referendum on it in parliament but there were a fair few Lib Dem grandees who threatened to publicly object and possibly quit the party if we did so. So, instead, we proposed and voted for an amendment for a full in/out referendum instead because it let us hit the tories and labour over the head with it whilst having absolutely no chance of being accepted by parliament.

But that then left us with a dilemma  We made much of that vote in our local election literature in order to try and win over some eurosceptics to vote for us (with precious little success) and then along came a general election and we had to find a way to explain our position. So we committed ourselves to a referendum the next time there was a major change in the relationship between the UK and Europe.

This was, actually, a consistent position, which we'd held all along, but it was also a disingenuous one since it let us make a pitch to the eurosceptics for votes as being the "one party that could be trusted to deliver a referendum" whilst also being a position which meant that, in reality, we'd never have to actually hold a referendum and risk losing because there'd never be a change in our relationship with the EU that was big enough to justify one.

And hence our position

And so here we are. We've got a position that's been consistent and which does follow a valid line of logic - but it's a disingenuous one at the same time because it's not a realistic reflection of what we think about Europe.

The odds are that, in 2015, we'll drop the pledge all together (after all, if we're going to have a referendum on Europe then why not one on NATO, the UN, the IMF, the WHO, etc, etc). I mean, that'd certainly be what the bulk of our members would prefer.

However, what I'd quite like is if, and the European elections next year would be a good time to do this, we were actually to finally make the positive case for Europe and try and win over the large minority of people who agree with us on this issue as opposed to running scared of our real beliefs.

Because the simple truth about the Lib Dem position is that it's one which has involved no lies, one which has been consistent, one which we can self-righteously defend, but at the same time is only that in a political sense of carefully wording things in such a way that you can't be caught out but can try and win votes by appearing to promise things you're not.

In short, it's a position which has involved no lies or deceit, but I doubt it's one which most normal people would rush to label as "honest" either.

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