“A referendum can’t be a substitute for a policy”
Rachel Sylvester has an outstanding column in The Times today (pay wall) about the delusions of a European referendum. Here are the best bits:
It’s far from clear what promising a referendum would actually mean. Would the public be asked to vote yes or no to staying in the EU, or asked to endorse a renegotiated relationship? Nobody knows …
The truth is that the idea of a referendum has become something close to a fetish for Tory Eurosceptics, who see it as a way of preventing their faithless leaders from betraying them …
Now, with the eurozone in crisis and the EU in flux, politicians of all parties are superimposing their own fantasies on to an imaginary vote. To the Tory Eurosceptics, it’s the chance for Britain to get out of the EU finally. To Labour’s pro-Europeans it’s a moment to defeat the Eurosceptics once and for all. This is as much about politics as the public.
I am not sure that she is right about the Tory Eurosceptics. I have wondered before about how many Tory MPs are firmly decided that the UK would be Better Off Out of the EU. Only a dozen or so have declared so publicly.* There may be perhaps twice as many who hold that view privately but won’t say it, knowing that it is a bar to promotion. But most of the 81 who voted for a referendum in the Commons revolt in October did so, I contend, for confused reasons of Euroscepticism short of Better-Off-Outism and a commitment to plebiscitory democracy.
Equally, she is too sweeping to imply that all Labour’s pro-Europeans are People’s Pledge supporters. Most, I guess, agree with her that the promise of a referendum is a dangerous tactic:
The danger is that expectations are raised that cannot be met, further undermining trust in politics.
A referendum should be a means to an end and not an end in itself. “A referendum can’t be a substitute for a policy,” says a Conservative minister. “It’s a bit like worrying about whether the wedding is going to be in a church with a white dress or a register office or in a balloon rather than thinking do I really want to be with this person?”
*For the sort of knots that the Better Off Outers can tie themselves in, or if you just want some light entertainment, read John Redwood’s blog on referendum tactics.Tagged in: euro, euroscepticism, Eurozone crisis
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