There seems to be an unspoken assumption among all commentators, and even UKIP, that we couldn’t leave the European Union without a referendum. UKIP policy is to hold a referendum on EU membership, and recommend to the British people that we should leave.
Commentators generally seem to say that there needs to be a referendum for any major constitutional change. That simply is not true – there is ample precedence otherwise.
Ted Heath and the Conservatives took us into the European Union in the first place, without a referendum.
Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives passed the Single European Act, without a referendum.
John Major and the Conservatives accepted the Maastricht Treaty, without a referendum.
And Tony Blair and Labour accepted the Lisbon Treaty (EU Constitution), without a referendum.
The same thing has happened in other areas too. Membership of the House of Lords, for example, was reformed by Tony Blair’s government, and devolution was granted to Northern Ireland, in both cases without a referendum.
So there is a great deal of history that tells us referendums are not needed for constitutional change.
Why, then, did we have that referendum on the EU in 1975, and why did we have a referendum recently on the voting system?
The referendum on the EU in 1975 was called by Harold Wilson’s Labour government. It was a way to finesse internal party disagreements on whether to accept the decision of the previous Conservative government to go in. The government and the Establishment weighed in on the side of a “yes” vote. The “yes” campaign outspent the “no” campaign by 10 to 1. The Prime Minister of the day declared that there was no threat to British sovereignty, while knowing full well that was not the case. And the people duly voted to stay in the “common market”.
The voting system referendum was fixed from the start. Because he was in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, David Cameron had to face the issue of voting reform. But he chose an extremely strange version of proportional representation to put to the people. The AV system that he offered is used almost nowhere. And having chosen it as the system to offer, he then poured cold water on it, pointing out its eccentricities and that hardly anyone had adopted it. During the campaign, the “No to AV” campaign outspent the “Yes” campaign, and pretty much the whole Establishment campaigned for a “No” vote, mostly by subtle attempts to scare the voters off voting for change. The people duly voted to stick with “first past the post”.
Notice a pattern here? The truth is that referendums are not devices for ascertaining the will of the people.
In both cases, the referenda were used to silence dissent, by enlisting the support of a popular vote to prevent change.
Referenda are of course unpredictable. No Prime Minister can be completely certain of the result in any referendum. They are therefore a last resort. But if there is no other way for a Prime Minister to silence critics and avoid change, they can be very effective, as those two examples showed.
In the case of any EU referendum now, pro-EU politicians like David Cameron could manipulate the question to avoid a vote to take Britain out. They could muster the full power of the government (and indeed Her Majesty’s Opposition) to persuade people to vote to stay in. They could even rely on liberal dollops of funding from the EU itself to ensure the vote they wanted.
Even imagine an unlikely but not impossible scenario of a UKIP government being elected at the next general election. If that government called a referendum, the Establishment would still weigh in for a vote to stay in. A succession of “leading business people” would be wheeled out to express their extreme concern. Shadowy Bank of England figures would mutter darkly about the “risks involved”, while declaring that of course it was a decision for the people and not for them.
The EU would pour money into the “Yes to EU” campaign. The vote itself would be held several months or even a couple of years into the Parliament, allowing ample time for that UKIP government to become unpopular. In many ways the referendum would become a referendum on the government’s performance, rather than a referendum on the substantive question.
In short, the referendum would probably be lost.
That government would have fallen into the “referendum trap”.
Alex Salmond has already done so. Having won a convincing and surprising victory in the Scottish elections, he has now declared a referendum on independence. He may yet pull off a “yes” vote, but I doubt it. The vote will go against, and Scottish independence will be declared as “settled for a generation” and no longer discussed – just as voting reform has been.
Referenda are devices to stop change, not requirements before change is enacted.
We (by which I mean UKIP) should not be promising a referendum. We should be promising that a UKIP government would take Britain out of the European Union.