Friday, 10 January 2014

The electorate does not need a referendum to force UK from the EU

If the Conservative Party wins an overall majority at the next general election, it is committed to repeal the Human Rights Act. Moreover, Theresa May - tipped by many as a Conservative leader in waiting - would also withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights. The latter move would virtually guarantee our exclusion from the EU as signing up to the ECHR is a precondition of membership of the Union, while the former would certainly ring alarm bells on the Continent. A move by one or more fellow-members to exclude us would surely follow.

Their Lordships are currently debating a Private Members Bill which passed the Commons with support from Conservative MPs. Lord Dobbs, a political novelist and former spin-doctor, introduced it with the disarmingly simple proposition that it would give the British people the right to decide whether they should have their freedom from being told what to do. As Paul Reynolds pointed out in Liberal Democrat Voice yesterday, it is not as simple as that. Dobbs also asserted that the British public had been consistently lied to over the implications of membership. I would put to him that it was Baroness Thatcher who lied to us; before her, the advocates of formal membership of the European project were clear that it was as much political as economic. It was Baroness Thatcher who pushed through the Single European Act which went a long way towards a federal Europe.

Whether or not the current Bill passes the Lords (and the signs are that it is going to run out of time), if there is another coalition government after 2015 (and the signs are that there will be), there are grave dangers in an In/Out referendum. Whether that coalition is Labour/LibDem, Con/LibDem or even Con/Lab, the government is bound on economic grounds to support EU membership, even if it puts conditions on that membership. As the AV referendum showed, the electorate will use the vote as a judgment on the government, irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the issue. The chances are high that there will be a perverse verdict.

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