The Tories of course have promised a referendum on the EU, although I’m suspicious as to whether they will actually commit to this course once it becomes obvious its not going to go the way they’d like it too.
While inevitably some will point to the election result as proof that we need to have a referendum (the argument being that a majority of people want it….although I seem to recall the Tories only winning 37% of the vote…a good bit short of a majority!). However the point of government is to make responsible decisions, not pander to the whims of the mob. As a consequence there are many good legal and practical reasons for this referendum not to be held.
A British Constitution
So why is it that the British haven’t had a referendum on Europe since the 70’s, yet some countries like Ireland have had more than we can count? Or indeed how is it we got to have a vote on gay marriage and the UK didn’t?
Well because in Ireland we, like almost every other civilised democracy, have a constitution, which can only be altered by popular vote of the people. Thus any time a new EU treaty comes up, we get to have a vote on it. UK citizens don’t get to vote on such matters, because you don’t have a constitution. Hence if there’s any referendum we should be having in Britain in 2017 its one on a UK constitution.
This would, in the first instance, guarantee not one EU referendum but multiple ones whenever the EU brings out a major treaty change. The current referendum plan offers no such guarantees. Furthermore, as I discussed previously in a prior post, many of the very things that are seen as causing friction with between the UK and Brussels, the conflict between the European Courts for example, would largely be resolved through a UK constitution, negating the need for any sort of renegotiation.
Should you be wondering if all I say is true, why isn’t every politician in the country signing up for a UK constitution? Well because, a constitution by its very nature puts a limit on government power. It blocks politicians from passing certain legislation without first getting the consent of the people. Courts are also constrained, as the constitution tend to decide how laws should be interpreted, not judges. Which is bad news if you’re one of the landed gentry used to buying the court rulings you want (such as those super injunctions!). Certainly, as events in the US prove, its still possible for the rich to buy the outcomes they want, but a constitution makes it a whole lot harder.
Of course this is the whole point of a constitution, a redistribution of power downwards…hence why even UKIP are against it!
A dangerous precedence
And to those who say, but we never got a vote on the EU, we want one now, well yes and did you get a vote on the privatisation of public services? Nor do I recall any vote on Trident, nor its retention. And the current Tory plans for the NHS, which seems to be to let it wither on the vine and then privatise it, well you ain’t getting a vote on that either!
A constitution would resolve these issues for future legislation. But the idea of having a retrospective referendum, as is proposed on the EU, is an unprecedented act in any democracy. It suggests that legislation passed by a previous government can simply be undone if you hold a referendum. Governments, either through referendum or otherwise, going back on legislation like this is a very rare event. About the only example I can think of is the repeal of prohibition in the 1930’s.
This sets a very dangerous legal precedence. For if ever a future hard left government were to come to power (and any economic downturn that were to follow an EU exit is exactly the sort of situation that could lead to that, just look at Greece!) they now have the perfect method to undo the legacy of Thatcher, Blair and practically every post-war Tory government in one parliamentary term. All they need to do is hold a few referendums.
The first one presumably to renationalise all public services (and opinion polls say such a policy would almost certainly go through), another to get rid of Trident, perhaps another one ends non-dom status and the property rights of the landowners (and puts a 75% tax on anyone educated in a private school I assume!), etc. Its the political equivalent of a military firing squad, seven rifles, one blank, nobody’s guilty.
In effect the Tories may one day curse they day they held this referendum as they watch everything they’ve fought for since the war dismantled in the blink of an eye.
There are many good economic and political reasons to be euroskeptic (again I’m not suggesting the EU is perfect!). The original founder of UKIP, Alan Sked outlines a few, as does this libertarian blogger (although he eventually concludes that leaving rather than reforming the EU would be throwing the baby out with the bath water).
However my fear is that the referendum won’t be fought on such issues. Instead it will be fought on the terms of the tabloids, which means immigration and how darkies are here to steal you’re jobs, clog up motorways, claim benefits and commit crime or terrorism in whatever limited free time this busy schedule allows.
Migration is a legitimate political topic, but as I’ve discussed before, many of the things migrants are blamed for are largely untrue. And more importantly, its questionable to suggest that leaving the EU will allow the UK better control over immigration. Consider that Norway and Switzerland are both non-EU countries yet they still have serious immigration problems (per capita both receive more migrants than any EU country). The Swiss are actually a minority in their own country in certain cities (although admittedly the majority of said foreigners would be Germans, Italians, accountants for Mexican drug cartel’s, exiled dictators, megalomanic heads of world football ;D etc. not the sort of migrants that come to the UK!).
And the Norwegian foreign minster has been very clear that he thinks the UK is better off in the EU than out. The Japanese and have warned of likely job losses if the UK were to leave. And the Americans have made clear that the UK’s relationship with the US will be damaged by leaving the EU.
However such facts will not be part of the debate, as that have not featured in any debate on immigration recently. The question asked will be do you hate the French? The idea that the UK will leave the EU for entirely false reasons built on a tissue of lies and racist xenophobia would drastically undermine the democracy and the character of the UK. This will inevitably have far reaching cultural and economic consequences.
My two votes
Indeed another curve ball we need to consider is that by holding a referendum, the UK may hand its fate over to other states. Recall what I said about Ireland, and a number of other EU countries, and how they handle EU treaty changes. If Cameron continues to insist (as he is) that anything he gets out of the EU is incorporated into changes to past EU treaties this could very well provoke further referendums in multiple EU countries (including Ireland).
Keep in mind here that the government in Ireland (and other EU states) doesn’t always get to decide whether or not there should be a referendum the supreme court often determines that. And in the past they have caught the government trying to sneak things through without a constitutional amendment and forced them to either drop the legislation, or hold a referendum before it can become law.
Thus we could see the situation where the UK votes to stay in, Ireland and say France, then vote to reject it, throwing the UK’s membership of the EU into chaos and uncertainty.
And least you say this sounds unlikely, I’ve been holding a sort of straw poll of Irish and other Europeans and putting the question to them should we make special allowances to the EU just to keep the brits in? I’ve so far yet to find anyone, not a single person, who would be willing to support such a bill…I won’t even vote for that myself! I could well get two votes in this referendum. One in the UK, yes to stay in, then got home to Ireland and vote no to reject the very deal Cameron is now negotiating.
And while Ireland and other EU states would have a vested interest in keeping the UK in, you’re being way too rational in making the assumption that this means a yes vote (keep in mind we Irish have a nasty habit of voting no at inconvenient times!). After all the UK has an even greater incentive to stay in (as in £215 billion reasons!) and yet there’s a sizeable number who will vote no regardless!
Chaos and uncertainty
Its very difficult to escape the conclusion that the aftermath of an EU vote will, far from resolving the issue, it will instead only lead to more uncertainty and confusion. After all we had a referendum a couple of months back in Scotland and while the Nat’s have gone quiet for now, the issue has certainly not gone away.
The balance of probability is a narrow yes to stay in. But that is unlikely to placate the bigot brigade, who will instead see it more as a target of the number of people they need to get to change their minds to win another future referendum.
Of course the end result is the UK plunged into several years of will they/won’t they uncertainty that will inevitably have a very negative effect on business. Particularly if, as noted, the re-negotiated deal Cameron is trying to get blows up in his face or is rejected by other EU electorates. Such a scenario will almost certainly split the Tory party.
And any vote to actually leave of course also creates greater uncertainty, particularly if its a close no, as seem likely. This is perhaps the worst case scenario, particularly given the rather foolish (and undemocratic decision) by Cameron to exclude EU citizens (including an MSP) from voting in it. After all would it be fair if say 52% voted in favour to leave? Out of a turn out of say 60%, with 1.5m denied a vote, meaning a margin of 29% of the electorate voting for something that dramatically effects the well being of the other 71%.
Such a result will almost certainly be challenged in the courts. Not just by individual voters but by companies, who will be able to show very real and credible economic damage to their business, as well as hire lots of crafty lawyers to make sure it gets argued over for who knows how long.
Recall the major hole in the SNP’s strategy was there were gaps in their independence plan big enough to fit a bus through. However there is no plan for Brexit. The holes here are big enough to sail the Queen Mary through! It would take a good few years to negotiate the terms of the UK’s exit. And the UK would also have to renegotiate trade deals and its membership of various international bodies, all of which are conditional on the UK being an EU member.
The result will be several years of economic uncertainty. Keep in mind that if the UK wanted a quick and easy deal to exit the EU, the obvious terms would be the same as those the Swiss and Norwegians have open borders, free trade an agreement, agreeing to keep most existing EU laws on the UK’s books and an agreement to speedily pass any future EU trade related rules.
However this immediately counters the very propaganda driving for Brexit and I can’t see how any future PM could hold a straight face and sign that! (and he sure as hell ain’t going to get it passed by another referendum!). So its likely that any exit talks will stall pretty quickly and could drag on for years.
And obviously if you’re the nationalists in Scotland and Wales, or the Republicans in NI…or even a supporter of Cornwall’s independence for that matter, one can scarcely thing of a better time to hold a referendum and break away from the UK than an extended period of economic and constitutional anarchy in Westminster. Legally, it will be very difficult as it is for London to leave the EU, without the consent and support of the regions. So you can probably guess what they’ll be looking for in return!
About the only scenario where I can see NI and the south unifying or Wales/Scotland breaking away is a Brexit scenario, particularly if the nationalist get to steal the UK’s seat at the EU table.
But Cameron promised I hear some say, he practically pinky swore! Yes, well this might come as a shock, but politicians have a track record of promising things at elections which they then renege on in government 88|. And in some respects they have too. Like I said their job is to ensure stable government, not act as facilitators of mob rule.
My gripe with the lib dems wasn’t that the reneged on their promises with regard to tuition fees. Its the fact that they made such a promise in the first place knowing full well they could never possibly keep it while in power with the Tories.
Similarly the Tories have made a political promise they can’t possibly keep. At least if they still want to call themselves a responsible party of government and any better than UKIP. If they follow through with this referendum it will drastically change the landscape of the UK politically and they made not survive the consequences of that.