Thursday, 6 March 2008

No Cojones

Britain won't have a referendum on the EU Constitution, sorry, Lisbon Treaty after all.

Last night the government and its supporters defeated a loose coalition of Tories and Lib Dem and Labour rebels by 311 votes to 248 to ratify the European Union treaty. The debate will now go to the Lords but is expected pass into law this summer without a hitch.

All parties found themselves in a pretty pickle over this issue, though for different reasons. As Simon Hoggart said in the Guardian

"Labour knows that it should have held a referendum, but won't because it would lose.

The Tories know a referendum would be catastrophic; it would set us back in Europe for years.

And the Lib Dems want a referendum on whether we should stay in at all because they can't think of anything else."

However, although I agree with his overall judgement I dont agree with this analysis.

Lib Dems supported the - in my opinion, rather ludicrous - suggestion that the UK hold a referendum on being in or out of the EU because they had already committed to a referendum in previous manifestos, much like Labour.

They were faced with the choice of letting the issue quietly drop and voting with the government - on the basis that we are the most europhilic party in the UK - or headlining the 'in and out' issue in an effort to move the debate onto different ground.

In the end, Clegg opted for an abstention, after the Lib Dem amendment on a referendum on EU membership was dismissed last week. Yet after ordering a three line whip to ensure party unity he was immediately undermined by 15 pro-referendum Lib Dem MPs who voted with the Tories.

This included three front bench spokesmen including the environment spokesman, Tim Farron, the Scotland and Northern Ireland spokesman, Alistair Carmichael, and the justice spokesman, David Heath. All later resigned. What a cock-up.

This is the angle the press has chosen to focus on. Yet the real reason this vote was such an unmitigated disaster is because, having imposed the whip, the Lib Dems found themselves in a position of undermining the one thing they have long fought for, namely European reform and progress.

Knowing that Labour rebels could swell the Tory ranks and defeat the government line we should have thrown ourselves behind Brown to ensure we carried the day.

Instead, after the much-dramatised 'walk out' from the Commons last week, we sat on our hands during the vote, drawing predictable criticism that the party has 'no cojones' and is simply a standing joke.

Clegg did all this despite overwhelming advice from Lib Dems in Brussels that the party should vote for its principles, namely an effective and reformed EU, instead of micro-managing its members.

Liberal Democrats know that without the Lisbon Treaty in place an enlarged EU will lack the necessary institutional tools to make effective decisions on matters of great importance from counter-terrorism, to energy security, and completing hte single market.

We know that we need to end unanimity in Council, which has blocked essential dossiers and reduced EU influence on the world stage.

We know that extending democratic scrutiny of legislation to all policy areas, including the CAP and the EU budget, is vital to ensuring decisions are made in the European, not just national, interest. And that those decisions are accountable to the public.

Yet we were prepared to play with fire for the sake of engineering a unity which
never transpired.

However Clegg should not take all of the blame for this unholy mess. It was extremely irresponsible for the party to put referendum promises in our previous manifestos, particularly in the current eurosceptic climate, where media misinformation makes having a rational debate on Europe all but impossible.

This naive gesture goes against our party's, not to mention the citizen's, best interests and is simply pandering to eurosceptic populism.

Don't give me the response about giving power to the people and acting democratically. We need to get it out of our heads that referenda are an answer to difficult questions. We were right to oppose a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty because it is far too complex a question for a plebicite.

Complex questions require thoughtful answers, not someone's (however cherished) gut reaction at the ballot box. Resolving complex questions is, indeed, why we bother electing our representatives in the first place, since few of us have the time or inclination to dedicate ourselves to reading the reams of paper required.

For Britain to have a real debate about Europe, it needs to open its eyes and eschew the kind of puerile propaganda that has passed for argumentation over the last decade or so. It is the responsibility of all political parties, regardless of their stance, to ensure this debate is carried out openly, honestly, and fairly.


silverlining said...

I nominate Cojones for the BBC political word of the year. Watch this space...

Lee Griffin said...

I have to completely agree though it is rather disingenuous of MPs to believe that they were significantly more informed or democratic than the public given the shortness of debate and use of three line whips.


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Consider This said...

Silverlining - ha ha, quite agree, wonder when it will make it into the OED

Lee Griffin - totally agree with your point, if our political parties cant even be bothered to have an informed debate (I thought GB had cast off 'spin' as the curse of Tony)then it is a sorry state of affairs

Anonymous said...

Waiting for Gordon? In the meantime, vote YES or NO to the alternative at