Against the People’s Pledge

John Rentoul

peoples pledge 3 1 copy 300x133 Against the Peoples PledgePeter Watt. Top man. Great book. But an odd thing happened when I read his post supporting the People’s Pledge pro-European campaign for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

That is a policy combination with which I had much sympathy in the distant past when I was chief leader writer at The Independent and Andrew Marr was its editor. I was a advocate of Britain’s EU membership, although not an enthusiastic one and I never thought adopting the euro was a good idea; and I thought referendums were a way of dealing with the weakness of democratic consent for the EU.

I thought the promise of a referendum on the euro was a powerful safeguard against its ever being adopted here. And I thought the idea of drawing up a European Constitution, the conspiracy of the Giscard d’Estaing elite, should have started from the premise that it should be capable of winning referendums in all member states. I dimly remember Marr putting something of this kind on the front page of The Independent.

So when the possibility of an in-out referendum was raised, as it has been occasionally since 1975, support for the idea on supposedly pro-European, supposedly democratic grounds was attractive.

But then, no.

I have become more sceptical about our membership of the EU recently, partly as a result of the demonstration of the unworkability of the euro. But I think the idea of a referendum on our EU membership is daft.

The point of a referendum is to make a proposal and to seek the electorate’s support for it. Those who want to leave the EU, a surprisingly small number in the House of Commons, despite the election of the most Eurosceptic parliamentary Conservative Party ever, have a proposal to make. Plainly, if they could command a parliamentary majority for it, it would require the consent of the people to be carried out. We are nowhere near that point.

The overwhelming majority of MPs want Britain to remain in the EU, despite the contradictions in that position that Daniel Finkelstein and I have pointed out. What is the point of putting “no change” to a popular vote? Allegedly, it is because the pro-Europeans have lost one part of the argument (on the euro) and hope to win a referendum just to shut Douglas Carswell up. As a plan, it has all the failsafe certainty and intellectual solidity of a dead stick insect.

So I take the opposite view to Peter’s. I am anti-European and anti-referendum. Not where I expected to be at all.

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  • greggf

    “I thought the promise of a referendum on the euro was a powerful safeguard against its ever being adopted here.”

    Well, I understood James Goldsmith’s Democracy and Referendum movements to have helped achieve that.
    Perhaps the more recent pressure from the People’s Pledge and the vote in Parliament did the same for Cameron’s veto (or non-veto as some say).
    The point may have been reached for Britain (and certain other members) where the ever-closer-union mantra of the EU is spent. Rolling it back, as Cameron declares is his ambition, may be difficult but holding it in check may be the result of this veto aided by the current pressure for a referendum.

    The point you make about democratic consent may not be reflected by MPs – they are always last to respond to public opinion! And the anti-EU vote polls hover around a majority – even Labour’s Natascha Engel is calling for one in Monday’s Guardian!

    PS; do you mean anti-European or anti-EU?

  • Stuart Coster

    Makes no sense, John. A referendum always has *two* options – ‘no change’, yes, but also ’pro change’. I can see people of all opinions backing the People’s Pledge, both pro-EU and anti. Don’t be swayed by just one advocate like Watt and put off this one chance of forcing a reappraisal of and, hopefully, change on the EU issue. You should be one of them! The result might rather be to shut up the EU-obseesive lobby and we can finally start to look to the big world beyond Europe for our future prosperity.

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