I am generally opposed to referenda and am strongly opposed to frequent referenda. I don’t think regular referenda are compatible with our representative democracy in which Parliament is supposed to be sovereign. They are often very divisive and bitter and can split the country right down the middle, causing divisions in friendship groups, relationships and families.
Often Governments offer referenda when they know, or are at least pretty sure, that they will secure their desired result (only one referendum – the EU referendum – has gone against the wishes of the Government of the day) or that the vote will kill the issue for at least a generation (Cameron’s aim with the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014). Sometimes Governments offer referenda because their own party is deeply divided on the issue and this was very much the reasoning behind Harold Wilson’s 1975 European “Common Market” referendum. Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair recently admitted that the only reason why he broke his promise to give the UK electorate a referendum on the EU’s treaty was because he thought he’d lose the vote. Governments never hold referenda out of democratic principle – they are always held for selfish reasons.
However, I believe that there is a very strong case for holding referenda on major constitutional issues, especially when our supposedly sovereign Parliament is giving up its own powers to an external body which is outside of the UK altogether.
The case for an EU referendum was particularly strong as the issue transcended party lines and as many parties were split on the issue. This meant that General Elections were not effective with regard to this issue. According to Lord Ashcroft’s extensive and thorough opinion polling, 58% of 2015 Conservative voters voted leave, 37% of 2015 Labour voters voted leave and 36% of 2015 SNP voters voted leave. A final point is that Parliament was so completely out of touch with voters on the issue of the EU. 70% of all MPs voted remain but only 47.9% of all UK voters voted remain. 70% of Labour-held constituencies voted leave but only 4.3% of Labour MPs voted leave. 36% of SNP voters voted leave but only 3.6% of SNP MPs voted leave. 25% of Green voters voted leave but the Green Party’s only MP voted remain.
The British people were never asked whether or not they wanted the UK to join the EU when it was created by the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. However, a referendum 24 years late is obviously better than no referendum at all. We have never had a referendum on any of the EU’s treaties (Maastricht in 1993, Amsterdam in 1999, Nice in 2003 and Lisbon in 2009), each of which have given up more and more of Parliament’s power to Brussels, despite numerous pledges from party leaders for treaty referenda. As of 22nd June 2016, no one under the age of 59 years had ever had their say on Europe. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave us a referendum in 1975 on whether on not we should remain members of the European Economic Community, EEC (the so-called “Common Market”), two years after Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath took us into the EEC without a vote.
I personally think that we should have had last year’s in/out vote back in early 1992 (before Parliament was asked to ratify the final draft of the Maastricht Treaty) when the EU itself was first created with its four key pillars of the freedom of movement of people, goods, capital and services. The EEC was a completely different organisation to the EU. This is clearly shown in the fact that the very generation who voted by 66% to support our EEC membership then went on to vote against it so strongly. According to Lord Ashcroft’s polling, 57% of all 55-64 year olds voted leave and 60% of all people over 64 voted leave (bearing in mind that no one under 59 could vote in the 1975 EEC referendum). The EEC did not have a freedom of movement of people policy, it did not charge us a net membership fee of £10 billion annually and it did not make ~59% of all UK laws.
Only a year after he became Conservative Party Leader, David Cameron said that his party needed to “stop banging on about Europe” and yet, ironically, Europe was the issue which ended his political career and which will, whether he likes it or not, define his legacy. From 2005 right through to the end of 2012, Cameron never promised an in/out referendum on our continued membership of the EU. In fact, quite the reverse – he specifically ruled out such a vote three times in 2011 and five times in 2012 alone.
Cameron then announced in January 2013, to everyone’s surprise, that he would hold an in/out vote by the end of 2017 if he were to win the 2015 General Election. One of Cameron’s Conservative Cabinet colleagues, Michael Gove, was certainly taken aback. When he first heard of Cameron’s intention to make the pledge, he emailed Cameron, begging him not to proceed, citing a possible detrimental impact on the unity of the Conservative Party. Why did Cameron change his mind so suddenly and pledge to hold the referendum when he did? When Cameron first seriously considered an in/out vote in 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg asked Cameron why he was considering offering such a vote and Cameron replied: “My backbenchers are unbelievably Eurosceptic and Ukip are breathing down my neck”.
However, I don’t really buy this argument for two reasons. Firstly, Cameron had ignored his Eurosceptic backbench MPs on Brexit ever since he first became leader in 2005. Secondly, UKIP did not even have a single MP, they had only secured a meagre 3.1% of the UK-wide popular vote and they only had 8 Councillors (just 0.3% of all Councillors nationally) in January 2013 when Cameron first pledged to hold the referendum.
I instead think that Cameron pledged to hold the vote for the following three reasons. Firstly, as Peter Hitchens has pointed out, he never had any intention of actually honouring his pledge. He foresaw another hung Parliament as did all of the pollsters and bookies from 2013 right up until the election in 2015. In that case, he would have sought to form another Coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats who he knew were staunchly pro-EU and would refuse to support an EU referendum. Cameron could then claim that he wasn’t able to deliver on his manifesto pledge of an in/out referendum on our continued membership of the EU as the Liberal Democrats had refused to back down. In the words of Eurosceptic backbench Conservative MP Nigel Evans, Cameron’s biggest mistake was winning an outright majority in the 2015 General Election as he then knew that he would have to deliver upon his pledge of an EU referendum. Another Coalition government with the Liberal Democrats would have suited Cameron personally very well as he himself is and has always been a liberal Conservative and as the Liberal Democrats could take the blame for all of the Government’s mistakes while the Conservatives would still win the most seats by a country mile. The result of the 2015 General Election shows this to be true – the Liberal Democrats did indeed take almost all of the blame and the Conservatives themselves took the credit, winning an outright majority – the first Conservative parliamentary majority since 1997.
Secondly, even if he did win an outright majority, he saw a leave vote as inconceivable. Thirdly, he thought that there would be a clear and strong remain vote which would kill the issue for a generation and cement his authority. This is after all, exactly what had happened with the 2011 Alternative Vote (AV) referendum – the Liberal Democrats clearly lost the vote and this cemented Cameron’s own position as Prime Minister and caused Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to lose authority.