Published on February 3rd, 2014 |
by Mark Scarborough
Where exactly do the Conservatives stand on Europe?
On Friday the 31st of January, the House of Lords rejected the EU Referendum Bill by a majority of 50 (1). The 180 No votes comprised of Labour, Lib Dem and Crossbench peers. Despite having passed in the House of Commons due to Labour abstentions, the Lords defeat killed the Bill in its present form. As was expected, the Conservatives turned upon Labour and the Lib Dems, and argued that they did not trust the public to decide an important aspect of their governance. Doing the rounds on twitter and Facebook was a picture saying “Today 122 Labour and 48 Lib Dem Lords voted against an EU Referendum. Only the Conservatives will give you the say you deserve”. From this language, especially to say that the people ‘deserve’ a vote on the EU, suggests the Conservatives attach an almost moral right for the people to vote on this.
What I find particularly fascinating though is the manner in which the Conservatives have historically speaking, never made such an In/Out pledge before and the circumstances under which they made the referendum pledge now.
If we go right back to the start of British membership of the European Union, it was the Conservative Party under Edward Heath who ‘took us in’ to Europe in 1973. At the time it was called the European Communities and Heath and his pro-Europe administration negotiated our entry. This resulted in the European Community Act 1972 and meant Britain joined on 1st January 1973. Interesting to note here that the Conservatives did not offer a referendum. The British public had zero say on the matter. It was after the October 1974 General Election and the Labour victory under Harold Wilson that Britain did get a referendum in 1975. All-in-all, there certainly was no moral arguments that the people ‘deserved’ a referendum coming from the Conservatives.
The next point of significance came in 1992. Under the Conservative Prime Minister John Major, Britain signed the Maastrict Treaty. For those not aware of this treaty, it effectively created the European Union that we see today. It contained the most radical changes to the European project since its creation and governed its operations (along with the Amsterdam and Nice Treaties) up until the Lisbon Treaties of 2009. Of interest for us here is that the Conservatives did not offer a referendum. They signed without considering if the people ‘deserved’ a say on this very significant constitutional change.
A slight alteration in direction came from the 2001 and 2005 General Election manifestos. Within both are pledges to hold referendums if new treaties are signed that would give significant new powers to Brussels. This was also followed by David Cameron in his 2010 election manifesto. Cameron pledged a ‘referendum lock’ and any new treaties would have to be ratified by the public. Indeed, the European Communities (Amendment) Referendum Lock Bill was passed by the Lords in July 2011 (2). Interesting for our purposes is that there was no pledge to hold an In/Out referendum. Yes, a possible referendum on treaty adoption could occur at some point in the future, but this is quite different from holding an almost random In/Out referendum in 2017. Why suddenly do the Conservatives feel that the people ‘deserve’ a say on our membership of the EU, despite historically speaking having never made such a pledge before?
I would say that there are two main reasons, and they have nothing to do with principled moral judgements on ‘deserving’ a vote.
The first reasons relates to quelling eurosceptic backbenchers. In June 2011, the Independent reported that 100 ‘moderate euro-sceptic’ backbenchers were going to press the Prime Minister for reform of the EU (3). In light of the eurozone crisis and bailouts of eurozone nations, the group wanted to take a tough stance and use the crisis to push for institutional reforms. In October of 2011, the Telegraph reported that the Prime Minister was facing a ‘guerilla war’ with his eurosceptic backbenchers (4) after 81 of them had supported an In/Out referendum motion by David Nuttall MP, despite the Prime Minister imposing a three-line whip to vote against such a referendum.
Indeed, a Tory MP said that Cameron was in ‘panic mode’ about the vote. Why did Cameron order his MPs to vote against a motion calling for an EU Referendum if he now wants one because the public deserve it? A Guardian article in November 2012 (5) outlines how eurosceptic rebels were pressing for deep cuts to the EU budget and even some, like Mark Reckless MP, were saying that this was the beginning of a debate to take us out of the EU. The above outlines just a few of the Prime Ministers clashes and rebellions against his leadership by the Tory sceptics. What better way to quell them than by having a pledge to hold an In/Out referendum?
The second reason is the rise of UKIP. In the 2010 General Election, UKIP polled 3.1% of the popular vote (6). However, by the local elections in May 2013, the Party averaged 13% in wards it contested (7). On the main, this did hamper the Conservatives and in places like Derbyshire, Labour were able to secure a landslide due to many traditionally Conservative wards turning red due to UKIP splitting the Tory vote. Overall, UKIP went from 3.1% in 2010, to 8% at the start of 2013, to 13% in the local elections in May 2013. Shortly after the local elections an ICM/Guardian poll placed UKIP at 18% for a General Election. This has fallen and UKIP now average is 12% according to the UK Polling Report (8). Importantly for us though, Cameron made his In/Out Referendum pledge in January 2013 and this was during their rise.
The above evidence does, for me, strongly indicate the reasons for Cameron’s EU pledge. He has consistently faced revolt from his backbenchers and UKIP could jeopardise any 2015 General Election victory. To suggest that he has acted because he feels the British people ‘deserve’ a vote is certainly not supported by historical evidence, especially him ordering Tory MPs to vote against a referendum motion in 2011.
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