The Referendum Question

One of the wonderful things about getting older is that you start to see how things come around again. As a ‘fresh-faced’ (not really) postgrad, I watched as the main British parties found themselves promising a referendum on membership of the single currency. Today (even less fresh-faced), I’m watching them do something similar on EU membership more generally.

In both cases the dynamics are the same. Pressure builds for a vote, either from internal factions (Tory backbenchers now) or external groups (Referendum party, UKIP), leading one party to make the offer of a vote, to try and out-manoeuver the others, leading to the others making the same offer, to close down the issue and the influence of the initial pressure. End result – a general commitment to a vote, but with no actual desire for a debate.

This strikes me as particularly counter-productive. I can agree with many sceptics who say that there has not been a proper debate about membership, either in the run-up to the 1973 accession, or in the 1975 referendum campaign, or since. Largely, that has been because no one (in power) felt it was particularly necessary, initially because it was seen as a technical exercise, later because it would just expose the tensions within all major political parties on the issue. More recently, the lack of public interest in the issue has meant that there’s not even a clear gain to be made by having the discussion, so relatively small numbers of activists hold disproportionate amounts of influence.

Consider 2004, when Blair changing policy and offered a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. No one really believed him at the time when he said it was a wonderful opportunity to ‘make the generational debate’, and nothing since supports that view either: it was a product of Tory policy, decisions in other member states and a need to kill the issue in the run-up to the EP elections that year. In brief, people didn’t come into it.

A referendum appears to be a good idea, because it makes a decision. Supporters of a vote can appeal to democratic values in support, which trumps  the more prosaic matters of economy or political strategy. A referendum also suggests a debate on merits and costs.

but to my mind, a referendum is not a solution, but rather a means to one. How can we reasonably boil down all of the many discussions we have had, and are could have, about the EU into a simple ‘yes/no’ question? Anything other than an ‘in/out’ question will just be treated as if it were that question, and that question doesn’t tell us what we do with either outcome (e.g. ‘yes, but this sort of Union’, ‘no, but we’d like to have access to markets’, etc.).¬† The only other sort of question that could be asked would be to give the government of the day a mandate to renegotiate membership (the 1975 process in reverse), but then we’d have to have another vote to decide on the outcome.

Moreover, and more consequentially, a referendum will not produce a lasting debate. 1975 didn’t do that. Nor did the commitments to euro membership or the Constitutional Treaty.

If we want to work out what we want, in an informed and considered way, then we have to talk about it in a more structured and structural way. That means politicians expressing their views, debating with each other and with other actors. It means civil society groups engaging with policy-makers and -implementers. It means a programme of meaningful education about what the EU is and does, based on even-handed materials. It means a media that will devote time and space to this.

That’s a big programme of action and one that we cannot achieve very easily. However, this shouldn’t stop us trying. Otherwise, we risk locking ourselves into a process that produces outcomes that no one really wants.