Steve Richards: A referendum offer is a poisoned chalice

Cameron cannot avoid pledging a referendum given the intensity of feeling in parts of his party

Share

Never underestimate the capacity of Europe to tear apart our political parties and virtually destroy them. A referendum, or the vague offer of a referendum, is the favoured device of party leaders to avoid such self-destruction. It never works.

Here we go again. Until recently a near unity had descended on the Conservatives in relation to Europe. The Eurosceptics had won. The few pro-Europeans were silenced or had disappeared. Now, the Conservatives are split once more, this time between expedient Eurosceptics and more evangelical ones who have had enough and want to leave the EU.

The division is potentially lethal. In terms of the Coalition, Nick Clegg has already taken many blows and will suffer another humiliation if his plans to reform the Lords are scuppered. Clegg has told Cameron that he cannot go into the next election having failed to secure any of his key constitutional reforms while the Conservatives achieve all of theirs, adding that his MPs are fed up of voting through proposals that challenge all they had previously espoused. In such a gloomy context, the pro-European Clegg will not be thrilled at propping up a Conservative party preparing the ground for a referendum on withdrawal from Europe.

But the heightened danger is for the Conservative party itself. Is Cameron paving the way for an in/out referendum after the next election that will almost certainly divide his party before the poll and after it? No wonder he is so vague about what form a referendum would take. The stakes could not be higher.

The near-fatal schism in the Labour Party in the 1980s started with Europe. The SDP took embryonic form in the early 1970s when the pro-European Roy Jenkins rebelled against his party's whip and voted in favour of Britain joining the Common Market, as it was then. When Jenkins and others left Labour a few years later, Europe was a defining factor. The schism led to Labour being out of power for nearly two decades. In the 1990s, it was the Conservatives' turn to erupt over Europe. John Major's ministers got on fairly well with each other, but fell out over the Maastricht Treaty, illustrating that a split over a policy is much more poisonous than personal animosities.

The Conservatives will almost certainly go into the next election pledging a referendum on membership of the EU. I cannot see how Cameron can avoid it given the intensity of feeling in parts of his party. That means Labour will make a similar pledge. No leader could survive a campaign arguing he is not planning to "consult the people" over Europe when his main opponent is doing so, even if no one is acting out of a sudden passion for direct democracy. Referendums are offered only for reasons of party management or to avoid tough decisions during an election campaign. Almost unnoticed, Labour has indicated support for one of the Coalition's early revolutionary moves: legislation that triggers referendums on treaties that transfer any powers from the UK to the EU. George Osborne has suggested rightly that the significance of this paralysing innovation has not been recognised. This is not enough for those who seem to blame the EU for all our ills.

As a result, leaders who like to project a misleading Thatcher-like certainty in their public performances cannot do so over Europe. Instead, the much less fashionable Harold Wilson is their model. In the early 1970s, Wilson exclaimed to Barbara Castle that he was "sick of wading through shit to keep the Labour party united over Europe". He waded on, renegotiating Britain's terms of membership, or appearing to do so, and then staging a referendum in 1975.

It solved nothing. By 1983, Labour went into an election pledged to leave the EU without the need of a referendum. Labour's anti-Europeans no longer supported referendums once they had lost one. As for the issue itself, I hear no Euro-sceptic say now that a "binding" referendum was held in 1975 and we must all move on. Instead, they want another binding referendum, and if they lose it they will want another when they can win.

Cameron is in too weak a position to resist such calls. As a short- term ploy, a commitment to hold one might calm nerves, but only when he is more precise about timing and substance. He will then become even more Harold Wilson-like. I can hear his evasive words at the next election. "I cannot say how I would vote in such a referendum until we have renegotiated our terms of membership." But, unlike Wilson, Cameron won't be able to get away with a cosmetic renegotiation. Yet nor will he be able to secure substantial concessions from the EU either. Not for the first time, offering a referendum might get a leader through a difficult month or two, but will become an instrument of torture against him and his party before very long.

We will all be victims, too, as this contorted, over-the-top, energy-sapping, party-splitting furore is a foolish and irrelevant diversion from the urgent task of moving Britain and the eurozone away from the cliff's edge.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: On behalf of a successful academy i...

Investigo: Finance Business Partner

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in providing ...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - West London

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: WEST LONDON - An excellent new opportunity wit...

Recruitment Genius: Florist Shop Manager

£8 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A Florist Shop Manager is required to m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Supporters of New Democracy wave Greek flags during Antonis Samaras pre-election speech.  

Greece elections: Where does power lie? This is the question that ties the UK to Athens

Steve Richards
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project