EU referendum has already drawn attention to Simon Heffer’s excoriation in today’s Telegraph and I do not propose to rehearse Richard’s North’s encomium save to repeat Heffer’s simple manifesto and add one of my own:
To which I would add this: as I came naked into this world a free-born Englishman, I would wish to shuffle off to my personal Valhalla in like condition, a free man unburdened by the thrall-ring of people who are not of my own kind.
The root of my opposition is straightforward. I wish to live in a country that governs itself. I wish to vote for people who, if elected, have power to take decisions and to alter the policies with which we are governed. I am not sure that is too much to ask.
The Guardian, not noted, as I say, from even modest departures from the Labour line, has a thoughtful piece from Sir Simon Jenkins. Headlined “Denying us a vote on the EU treaty is arrogant cowardice”, it is subtitled thus:
This sets the scene for Jenkins’ piece. He reminds us of the nature of Blair’s promise to us when he initially promised us that we would in time have our say and before I cite Jenkins’ view, it is perhaps worth recalling how Tony Blair put the matter in Parliament when announcing the referendum on 20th. April 2004:
Without the debate a referendum would bring, Britons will rebel against unsanctioned meddling, to the union’s detriment
To this I shall return in due course but that is how our late but scarcely lamented Prime Minister then issued his call to arms and it is that referendum that he, Gordon Brown and every other Labour MP promised to give us when seeking election in 2005, of which Jenkins says:
The question will be on the treaty, but the implications go far wider—as I believe we all know. It is time to resolve once and for all whether this country, Britain, wants to be at the centre and heart of European decision making or not; time to decide whether our destiny lies as a leading partner and ally of Europe or on its margins. Let the Eurosceptics, whose true agenda we will expose, make their case. Let those of us who believe in Britain in Europe—not because of Europe alone, but because we believe in Britain and our national interest lying in Europe—make our case, too. Let the issue be put and let the battle be joined.
That was then, of course, and this is now and Jenkins suggests it matters not that there were promises: the issue remains whether this Treaty requires a referendum, regardless of what has happened in the past. Whilst I do not concur that we can simply brush aside without more the promises of Her Majesty’s First Minister, Jenkins points out that rational argument on the matter is somewhat clouded by perceptions on either side as to what the likely outcome would be of such a plebiscite.
………. all three parties promised voters at the 2005 general election that their view on the restructuring of the EU would be sought in a referendum. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown pledged there would there be no question of “bringing it back with a few amendments” and pretending it was different. There were no ifs, buts or equivocations. There were no references back to previous referendums or debating points about the Single European Act. There was just an old-fashioned, cast-iron, read-my-lips, democracy-is-sacred, thundering great pledge.
In that regard he adverts to the position of the Liberal ‘Democrats’ whom he describes as ‘neither liberal nor democratic’ (something which I have been pointing out for some time by the simple use of the commas around the word ‘Democrats’):
They too pledged a ratification referendum. But they have never been able to see, hear or speak evil of Euro-centralism, and therefore hold that a referendum on the treaty (which might be lost) should not be risked while one on withdrawal from Europe (which might be won) can be. The party’s leader, Nick Clegg, wriggled and squirmed when asked yesterday if he would support the government and oppose a referendum. It was like asking a Catholic if he would support the Pope.
One argument used by those who would sell us off to the EU to avoid this referendum is that in the UK we do not do things by referendum but we leave it to Parliament to sort the matter out. That may once have been the conventional position but, as Jenkins observes, things have changed. For the last thirty years we have had a series of referenda on the issue of constitutional change – mostly in relation to devolution – and that amounts to both a change and a development in our democratic arrangements:
Referendums are customarily used to approve changes in a nation’s constitutional structure. In this they have replaced the traditional British way of reform of bipartisan royal commissions. Given the pace of centralisation in many European states, referendums have increasingly been used to limit centralisation, to reallocate and fix power vertically between tiers in a democracy.
Thus a referendum was used by the British government to validate Scottish and Welsh devolution.
Jenkins wonders then what happens now if our laws and governance are to be decided, not in The Palace of Westminster, but as a result of the various undemocratic cabals that make up the governance of the EU:
Assuming all this, what happens next? We all know the answer. People fed up with bureaucratic meddling in their lives will gradually withdraw consent from honest government. As under communism they will evade, fiddle and go apathetic. Faced with a torrent of Euro-directives – some possibly virtuous, on free trade, energy saving, public safety, terrorism, civil rights, building regulations and conservation – they will disregard them, as Mediterranean countries ignore or corrupt any public administration they do not like. I do not want this sort of Britain. It will happen not because voters were cheated of a promised referendum. Most will just shrug and say: “Typical politicians.” It will happen because no attempt was made to persuade them of the worth of a substantial transfer of their democracy off-shore, as would have happened in a referendum campaign. This neglect was not oversight. It was because the government thought its persuasion might not work (despite the polls suggesting it might). It was the arrogance of political cowardice.
I do not want that sort of Britain either, nor, I suspect, do many free-born Englishmen. The sort of Britain we had before all this surrender of sovereignty to a lot of unelected foreigners with their own electors to satisfy was a far better arrangement than the one we have now in that it had been arrived at after nigh on a thousand years of progressive and continuous development that suited first the English temperament and then, after the Union of the Kingdoms, the British temperament.
Though Jenkins remains persuaded (though hardly passionately) of the worth of our membership of the European Union, it is a position which remains conditional:
[Continued membership] is tenable only if Britons are willing participants in this “ever closer union”, and many are unwilling. Not asking them will not increase their willingness. It will be worse than undemocratic, it will be foolish.
In essence Jenkins reminds us that the whole of our British democratic dispensation by which we are presently governed depends on the free and whole-hearted consent of the British people. It also depends on those who govern continuing to seek that consent: it is not a matter of asking once and then for them to swan off and do as they please.
For that is what is happening in the present circumstances: major and rapid change has taken place in the manner of our governance and there are clear and unambiguous signs that we, the people, do not concur with or assent to those changes. If that concurrence and assent is not sought, then a breach between the people and our political masters of a fundamental nature is bound, sooner or later to take place.
The sort of dishonest and dishonourable behaviour which has characterized our Prime Minister’s dealings with this grave matter of a fundamental shift in our constitutional arrangements will further distance the governing from the governed. If our consent is so casually to be dispensed with, then we may one day casually dispense with them.
And they might care to ponder on this: on one occasion, to make the point abundantly clear, we cut off a King’s head.
I return now to Blair’s speech in Parliament when he first announced the referendum he and Brown have now reneged upon.
He made it clear that he saw the referendum as being not just on the Treaty but about wider issues pertaining to our relationship with Europe. In so doing he made it clear that the time had come “once and for all” to resolve the issue of that relationship.
Nothing, but nothing, has changed in the meantime to alter that fundamental point, nothing has happened to say that that moment has somehow disappeared or receded.
He calls upon Eurosceptics to make our case: this we have done and continue to do and will do in future until the issue is resolved.
What is notable is that in the meantime Labour, the Liberal ‘Democrats’ and a few Tory Europhiles have singularly refused to make their case as they said they would. For Blair and Brown have explicitly said that the issue will not now be put and most assuredly Labour and the Liberal ‘Democrats’ have quit the field without giving battle as they promised to do.
They have done so because they are cowards who are not prepared to risk defeat, who are not prepared to be gainsaid by the British people.
This is no way to govern a people who have always played their part in the business of government by consent. If they will not now play their part, then it may be time for us to tear up the rules and start again. And then they may find we wish to do so without them.