The surprising truth about that Lib Dem in/out EU referendum leaflet*

by Stephen Tall on January 17, 2013

Clegg-referendum-leaflet-lisbon-2008On Monday morning, Nick Clegg was given a hard time on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme by interviewer Justin Webb, who accused him of changing his position on an EU referendum on the basis of this pictured leaflet (click to enlarge**).

Nick brushed it to one side, correctly pointing out that the party has stuck to its 2010 manifesto pledge (my emphasis):

The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.
– Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto

Since then, though, there’s been a fair amount of head-scratching at Lib Dem HQ trying to find out more about that leaflet.

They think they now know the answer: it dates to 2008 — two years before the general election — when the Lisbon Treaty was progressing through Parliament.***

The party took the position that any referendum limited to the Lisbon Treaty itself would be a false one. It would inevitably turn into a ‘Do you like the EU or not?’ referendum, so the question asked should be the fundamental in/out one.

Not all Lib Dem MPs agreed with this position: three resigned from the front bench in order to vote for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty itself. (And see how it’s held back their careers — Tim Farron is now party president, while Alistair Carmichael is Lib Dem chief whip and David Heath a government minister.)

Put all this together and it shows that the Lib Dems have actually had a consistent policy on an EU referendum throughout Nick Clegg’s tenure as party leader: when a British government signs up for a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU there should be an in/out referendum, not simply a referendum limited only to the changes agreed in the Treaty itself.

_ _ _

* to the best of my knowledge and understanding.

** Image taken from George Eaton’s post here on the New Statesman website.

** Three reasons for dating it to 2008:
1) the picture used of Nick Clegg is one that wasn’t used at all during the general election,
2) the text refers in the present tense to the Lisbon Treaty (‘the Conservatives only support a limited referendum on the Lison Treaty’), and
3) the person who it’s believed art-worked the leaflet is understood to have left the party that year.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.