Alan Watkins: The tangled tale of referendums: episode two

Once again the Commons found itself immersed in another elaborate charade for the entertainment of the political classes
Click to follow
The Independent Online

None of the main parties (including, for present purposes, the Liberal Democrats) wants to have a referendum, whether on the Lisbon Treaty, on Europe generally or, for that matter, on any other subject under the sun. They certainly did not want to have one as a result of the various complicated divisions in the House last week. A vote or votes against the Government would have brought about several difficulties for all three parties. As it was, a Westminster charade was enacted for the entertainment of the political classes. The voters must have looked on, if they looked at all, in some puzzlement on the proceedings.

The three Conservative leaders between the departure of Sir John Major and Mr David Cameron all tried to make a play for the anti-Europe vote both in their own party and in the country at large. Mr William Hague and Mr Michael Howard failed electorally over Europe and in other respects, while Mr Iain Duncan Smith was never given the chance to put his views to the test in an actual election.

All the time, however, Mr Rupert Murdoch and his newspapers were giving hope and encouragement to the Europhobic cause. But here is the strange thing. While Mr Murdoch and his papers were depicting Brussels and Strasbourg as being as insalubrious as Sodom and Gomorrah, if not more so, that very same proprietor, and those identical journals, were praising Mr Tony Blair and his shifting company of ministers as the saviours of the nation.

Meanwhile the Europeans were busying themselves with the new European Constitution, a monument to the vanity of the French former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. The French were to have a referendum on the new constitution, as were the Dutch.

The Conservatives in opposition under Mr Duncan Smith decided to call for a referendum of their own. So did Mr Murdoch and his papers. Whether Mr Murdoch picked up the idea from the Tories, or the other way about, is not wholly clear. But it was the source of the idea rather than its merit that made the difference to Mr Blair.

Under Mr Howard, the Conservatives were being an irritant, the perpetrators of a perfectly legitimate wheeze, which the Labour Government might or might not choose to deal with by means of the promise of a referendum. But Mr Blair could not afford to risk annoying Mr Murdoch. That, at any rate, was clearly what Mr Blair thought at the time.

Thus, in May 2005, the Conservatives were promising to oppose the new European Constitution. At the same time, they were promising a referendum. This must have been one of the few occasions for a prospective government to promise a referendum while calling on its citizens to oppose its provisions. Labour demanded a referendum in support of a splendid new "constitutional treaty", as the manifesto called it. The Liberal Democrats were equally enthusiastic, while likewise demanding a referendum on the new constitution.

Hardly had the new Government retaken office when the French and the Dutch rejected the constitution. The rest of Europe carried on as if nothing had happened and proceeded to incorporate the more important of the constitution's provisions in the Lisbon Treaty.

This enabled Mr Gordon Brown to get out of any promise of a referendum because it was about a treaty, not a constitution. Mr Cameron was able to keep his word, as Mr Brown did not, while accommodating his Europhobes and at the same time making even Mr Kenneth Clarke reasonably happy. It is for Mr Nick Clegg that I feel. "Eee, poor lad!" as the late BBC commentator Eddie Waring once observed as the young player in a Rugby League cup final missed the final kick and lost the match.

Let us, however, try to be fair.

The week before last, Mr Clegg led his lads and lasses out of the Chamber when the deputy speaker refused to allow them to put an amendment. This was for a referendum to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. It was not about the Lisbon Treaty as such.

On Tuesday, in a little-known procedural device, the Liberal Democrats managed to try to instruct the chair to consider their own "in-or-out" amendment. After a short and orderly debate, the attempt failed in a division. But the attempt was well worth trying; and Mr Clegg and his allies deserve every credit for having a go.

In 2005, we should remember, there was not the slightest necessity for the Liberal Democrats to become involved with referendums, one way or the other. Mr Howard wanted to embarrass Mr Blair and to accommodate many in his party; Mr Blair wanted to suck up to Mr Murdoch; Mr Charles Kennedy was untypically guilty of an excess of activity and zeal. His successor, Sir Menzies Campbell, for reasons which I have yet to plumb, then decided to change the question that had been raised in all three manifestos and to raise another question entirely, though it may have been related: whether the UK should be in Europe at all.

Mr Tony Benn first raised it in the early 1970s. Roy Jenkins resigned as deputy leader of the party because Labour had adopted the referendum as its policy. Returned to office in 1974, Harold Wilson surprised many by keeping his word at having a referendum after all. The favourite explanation was that he would win it, keep us in Europe and secure party unity, at any rate for a time.

One of the newspapers wrote last week that, to appear principled, the Liberal Democrats should have followed Mr Brown into the government lobby. I am unable to see this myself. Mr Clegg and his chums, after all, chose to commit themselves to a referendum, as did both the other parties in their manifestos.

The least honourable course of all would have been to march into the lobbies behind Mr Brown. The slightly more honourable course, though not by much, would have been to sit on their hands, which was what Mr Clegg and his party mostly did. It would have been more consistent for them to vote with the Conservatives.

Nor did this exhaust the range of possibilities. The Glasgow MP Mr Ian Davidson, in the course of an excellent speech, explained a second amendment made by him. This was christened "The Labour Euro Sceptic Amendment", which not only called for a referendum, as the Conservatives did, but also retained the possibility of a further question, about whether we should be in or out of Europe.

The Liberal Democrats had made such a tremendous fuss about this question – first day flouncing out, then an emergency, preliminary debate – that it was a pity that they had refused the opportunity of voting when the chance had been offered to them.

One of my old colleagues in the press gallery and in the lobby told me afterwards that these matters were difficult to explain in a daily paper because they were no longer explained on television. I have every sympathy with television, with the papers and with my old friend.