I was asked to give a speech at a conference today, arguing the case against having a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. I’d rather have been asked to speak about why the Lisbon treaty is a good thing – focusing on the content rather than the process – but anyway I’m a good sport.
I told the audience that there are two basic arguments against such a referendum, but they are incompatible with each other. I explained both of them, rather than saying which one I preferred.
1. Britain is a parliamentary democracy
The Lisbon treaty is now passed into law. It was debated and voted upon in parliament, which is the British constitutional way of ratifying treaties. It was one thing to try and insert into the ratification bill the requirement to hold a referendum, but it is quite another to go back now that it has had royal assent and reopen the debate. We are told that it is a matter of fundamental constitutional principle, but is that really so? After all, there are plenty of other constitutional issues that advocates of a referendum on Lisbon do not feel so passionate about.
For example, there are many people in this country who would prefer Britain to abolish the monarchy and become a republic. That is at present a settled constitutional matter in British law, but there aren’t many eurosceptics calling for a referendum on it now. Then there is electoral reform. Labour even had a commitment to a referendum on PR in their 1997 general election manifesto. Most eurosceptics at the time, according to their Lisbon principles, should have supported this as a fundamental constitutional issue, but they did not.
And right now, in Scotland, there is the strong demand for a referendum on independence. A constitutional issue if ever there was one. But the eurosceptics in Scotland, for example in the Scottish Tory party, are against there being a referendum. Were the Conservatives to side with the SNP on this, they would have a majority in the Scottish parliament. But the Tories persist in opposing a referendum there.
What all of these three fundamental constitutional issues have in common is that the eurosceptics in general support the majority opinion in parliament, namely monarchy, first past the post voting, and union between England and Scotland. The issue upon which they want a referendum is one where they are in a minority in parliament. The suspicion arises that, in the eyes of its advocates, this is not a matter of constitutional principle at all but rather an attempt to get what they want by other means if parliament will not give it to them itself.
2. Lisbon is the wrong subject for a referendum
The second argument, which is of course incompatible with the first, is that referendums are in fact a good idea, but that the Lisbon treaty is the wrong subject for a referendum on Europe.
Listen to all the criticisms made of the treaty: it enshrines the supremacy of EU law over national law; it doesn’t reduce the burden of regulation or the policies such as the CAP or the CFP; it leaves an unaccountable bureaucracy and does not deal with the democratic deficit. Leaving aside the question of whether these criticisms are in fact valid, they are all in fact criticisms of the EU as such and not of the Lisbon treaty. A No vote on the Lisbon treaty will leave them all unaffected. The only vote that would deal with these public concerns is a vote on EU membership as a whole.