Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Six hours to discuss how to run a referendum

Heaven help us when we actually get to the referendum itself

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Indy Politics

If this is what an argument about the Euro-referendum rules is like, heaven help us when we get to the referendum itself.

It started, appropriately enough given the amount of air time he would grab during six hours of debate, with Alex Salmond.

Not without interruption.

Salmond was arguing that any decision to leave the EU should be endorsed by all four “constituent nations” of Britain when the Tories’ veteran pro-European ex-Chancellor Ken Clarke suggested that the “perfect result” for Salmond would be “for Scotland to vote yes and England to vote no”, in which case “the end of the United Kingdom would probably be quite imminent?”

Well, said Salmond, since Nicola Sturgeon had suggested that such circumstances might indeed trigger another Scottish referendum, Clarke “does have a point”.

No Alex. Not just “a point”. A gigantic monster of a point, underlining just how – to quote the PM’s own Freudian slip during the election – “career defining” such a result would be for David Cameron.

Losing EU membership would be unfortunate for him. Losing the United Kingdom as well, would be careless. It’s why Salmond’s proposal would actually make some sense.

And why, ironically, the fact that it was comprehensively defeated makes it that bit likelier he will get his “perfect result”.

Meanwhile, the Tory eurosceptics – Liam Fox, Sir William Cash, Bernard Jenkin, et al – were terribly exercised about “purdah” and the need for the government machine not to be deployed during the campaign, so exercised that Cash had come from hospital to argue that anything else would be “unfair on the voters” and a “very, very retrograde step in the kind of democracy that we uphold”.

He was allowed to sit down for his speech, which was as well since it was long enough to tire even a man in the pink of health. Not to mention those listening to it.

Clarke, who has been arguing about Europe with Cash for as long as either of them can remember, was unimpressed by Cash’s argument that the Government was ignoring the advice of the Electoral Commission. Clarke replied magisterially that he once suggested to an official enquiry that the commission “should be abolished as a useless quango”.

To be fair, the eurosceptics had no monopoly of laborious speeches. Labour’s Mike Gapes’ erudite run around all the periods when it wouldn’t be a good idea to have the referendum – the French elections, the German elections etc – was so lengthy that Tory europhobe David Nuttall said this meant “there would never be a good time to have a referendum on our [EU] membership”. Well, said Gapes, he had always agreed with Margaret Thatcher, who quoting Clement Attlee, had said that referendums were “the devices of demagogues and dictators”. With everyone talking as if the referendum was as old as the constitution itself, this was at least a timely reminder that it was simply dreamt up by Harold Wilson in 1975 to unite his party. A goal it signally failed to achieve.