Steve Richards: Referendums are crude, cynical devices that have nothing to do with the will of the people

The offer of a referendum at a later date is made in order to postpone an awkward debate

Tuesday 04 March 2008 01:00 GMT

On one important point the Euro-sceptics are right. They protest with outraged moral indignation that the Government refuses to grant them a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty because it is terrified of losing.

Of course, the Government knows it would lose and that such a loss would be terminal. It is one matter to call off, with neurotic clumsiness, a possible early election and quite another to be defeated in a make-or-break referendum. The game would be up. On that basis alone, the Government would be mad to hold one and will not do so.

Inadvertently, the Eurosceptics show why referendums should not be touched. They are crude, undemocratic devices that have nothing to do with a desire to let the people have their say. No government will hold a referendum if it knows it is doomed to defeat, but the converse is also true. Governments only discover an enthusiasm for referendums when they are confident they can win. In all circumstances, referendums are the product of self-interested calculation and not an exciting extension to decision making. They are a means to achieve other ends wholly unrelated to the apparently noble desire to consult the voters.

To prove the point, the Euro-sceptics need to look no further than their own oscillating take on the issue. They were also against referendums when they feared they would lose. After the big "Yes" vote in the 1975 referendum, Labour's anti-marketeers lost interest in giving voters their say on Europe and deployed other tactics to get their way.

The MP Eric Heffer declared triumphantly at Labour's conference in 1982: "Vote Labour at the next election and we pull out of the Common Market. There will be no referendum or any other distraction. A Labour government will leave Europe". Like Tony Benn, Heffer had been a fan of referendums until he lost one.

It was Benn who had proposed the original referendum that was held in 1975. The Prime Minister at the time, Harold Wilson, saw it solely as a means of keeping his party together. His senior colleague, James Callaghan, observed that in proposing a poll on Europe, Benn had given Labour a, "life raft on which the party could all climb aboard".

So Wilson offered a referendum to stop his party from sinking. Later, he held the referendum when he knew he could win. Both objectives were met in what remains an underestimated sequence of achievements for Wilson, but they had absolutely nothing to do with a sudden passion for new forms of democracy.

What is more, there is an important contrast, as the astute Wilson recognised, between offering a referendum and holding one. The aims are entirely different. The offer of a referendum at some later unspecified date is made in order to postpone an awkward debate until another time. There is no guarantee that the offer will be realised.

Tony Blair was always offering referendums although he held very few of them. In the 1997 election he proposed separate polls on the euro, electoral reform for the Commons, the introduction of mayors, and devolution for Scotland and Wales. I remember saying to him that voters would be going to the polls most weeks of the year. He looked at the ceiling in despair, conveying no enthusiasm for such a prospect.

Labour only half won the 1997 election because a lot of the awkward choices were postponed, pushed into the long grass by the offer of referendums. The ones on the euro and electoral reform were never held, but the offers kept the show on the road. The Lib Dems were excited about the prospect of a referendum on electoral reform. The eurosceptic newspapers backed Labour because the euro was not an election issue but one that would be decided later in a referendum.

The pledge to hold a vast number of separate polls did not mean that Blair had become a passionate enthusiast for new forms of democracy. On the contrary, he wanted to neuter highly charged debates in the election campaign.

This was even more blatantly the case when Blair suddenly promised a referendum on the European constitution. Originally he had opposed the idea but the unelected Rupert Murdoch made it clear to him that The Sun would only back Labour if he promised a referendum. Weakly, he agreed, in order to get him through the 2005 election. He never held that plebiscite either.

Blair's reason for declaring in favour of a referendum on the constitution is worth recalling. He did not declare: "Having spent the last few months insisting that there is nothing in the proposed constitution that merits a referendum, I have now changed my mind and decided it is a document that will bring about profound change." Instead, he put forward a much more down-to-earth argument for his U-turn. Blair insisted that the Government's view on the relative modesty of the constitution would not be heard because of the noisy clamour for a referendum. He never acknowledged the clamour was justified.

Even so, the Eurosceptics call now for a referendum on the more modest Lisbon Treaty. I can think of no issue less suited to a referendum than the proposed new arrangements for an enlarged union. Would there be a televised debate on the voting rights for Poland? Would homes around the country debate with passion Britain's opt-outs? Anyway, Britain has so many opt-outs there will soon be calls for us to opt in, especially in relation to co-ordinating crime across Europe.

The Liberal Democrats are correct to claim that many Eurosceptics want to withdraw from the EU altogether. The sceptics are never content with Europe and never will be. In the 1990s they wanted Britain out of the euro and part of an enlarged EU. They have got their way on both, yet they find other reasons to despair. They would be happier out of it. But Nick Clegg is disingenuous in calling for a referendum on Britain's continuing membership. Such a campaign would be absurd, with the three main party leaders calling for a "yes" vote in spite of their deep differences over Europe. The Lib Dems' proposed referendum is a device to keep the party together and to cause trouble for the Conservatives.

Contrived proposals tend to rebound on those making them. The Liberal Democrats' proposal has not exactly given them renewed credibility. Elsewhere, calls for a referendum help David Cameron now, but will land him in big trouble if they persist once the Treaty is ratified. In the mean time, the Government suffers from the consequences of Blair's proposed referendum before the last election.

In the end, referendums never help those who propose them. They never do so because of an interest in democracy. Euro-sceptics proclaim about the sovereignty of the UK Parliament. Again they are right. On this issue Parliament should decide.

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