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Daydreaming of a referendum on Europe

Simon Usherwood

It’s not often that I nap in the afternoon, but I managed it last Friday. Partly it was the muggy weather, but mainly it was listening to the second reading of the European Union (Referendum) Bill in the Commons. While I wait for you to recover from your shock, I’ll just explain a bit why.

The Bill, as you’ll recall, is a private member’s proposal by James Wharton, who won the ballot and responded to the calmour of the Tory backbenches by pushing at the open door of a referendum on the EU. The party leadership, bound by the coalition, had encouraged (indeed, whipped) the party to support the Bill, despite it going rather against David Cameron’s stated preference of renegotiation prior to a vote.

With Labour and the LibDems absenting themselves from the chamber, the result of the second reading was never in doubt and the debate followed that logic. This was then the political wet dream of the Tory party: stout expressions of the need to consult the people, concern at the nature of European integration, all topped off with a chamber that purred in sympathy, ending up with a one-sided vote where no one opposed the motion. The House had spoken for the nation and justice was being served.

Of course, like so much onanistic activity before, this is all likely to come to nothing.

Firstly, the Tories remain a minority in Parliament, even with the support for some smaller parties, so there is no apparent chance of the legislation passing.

Secondly, the Bill does nothing to placate the LibDems in the coalition, which potentially jeapordises the rest of the government’s legislative programme, and makes it more likely that the LibDems would switch to Labour as a coalition partner after the 2015 election, further decreasing the chance of securing a referendum.

Thirdly, the debate reinforces the long-held view of many voters that the Tories are still ‘banging on’ about Europe, to use Cameron’s memorable phrase. Elections are still not won on European policy and it is hard to see how this clearing of the pipes by the backbenches will make them feel that they need to feather back on the issue.

However, most notably (for me at least), was the lack of progression in the rhetoric used by the speakers in the debate.  The ideas of a referendum to stimulate debate, protect British interests and rights, or to stop integration before it moves into a new phase; all of these were being used in the early 1990s, when Maastricht was being discussed. In short, while the referendum device has much leverage, it does not in itself move debate to focus on contemporary concerns or realities. If such a public vote does ever come to pass – and I am still doubtful that it will – we should not confuse that with an acceptance of other lines of sceptic argument. At best, it is a discussion of procession, rather than of substance.

As the old tropes echoed around the chamber, so my eyes grew heavy. However, I awoke some time later, much refreshed, unlike the debate.

Dr Simon Usherwood is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics, University of Surrey.

Twitter: @Usherwood and @surreypolitics



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