Lib Dem MP Martin Horwood socks it to the Tories over their “dramatic flip-flopping” on in/out EU referendum

by Stephen Tall on July 6, 2013

martin horwoodWhile most of the country was enjoying yesterday’s sunshine, the Tory party indulged its own carnival of (to coin a phrase) banging on about Europe.

James Wharton’s private member’s bill legislating for an in/out referendum on the European Union to take place by 2017 (a pledge David Cameron has already conceded to his rebellious backbenchers, who don’t believe him) passed its second reading in the Commons by 304 votes to zero.

Only one Lib Dem MP made a speech: Cheltenham’s Martin Horwood. It’s a punchy tour de force which details the Tories’ “dramatic flip-flopping” on the whole subject of Europe and whether they’re for or against referendums.

“Ah, but…” (I hear the cries of critical commenters rising) “… what about the Lib Dems’ own flip-flopping? What about that 2008 Clegg leaflet promising a referendum on Lisbon? Eh? Quisling EUSSR-ophiles, the lot of you!”

Well, I’ve dealt with that at least a couple of times before: here ‘The surprising truth about that Lib Dem in/out EU referendum leaflet*‘, and here ‘The flagrant consistency of the Lib Dems’ position on an in/out EU referendum‘. The Lib Dem position has not changed for at least the past five years. As Martin Horwood re-iterates:

I have already spelled out very clearly our position, which is exactly the same one as we took at the time of the Lisbon treaty and of the last election: at a time of treaty change, fundamental change or a transfer of power from the British to the European level, we would want an in/out referendum, and we would legislate to make that possible in the event of our having a majority in Parliament.

Quite. The one, single, sole and only change that has occurred in Lib Dem policy on Europe in the last five years is that, when negotiating the Coalition Agreement in 2010, we accepted the Tory leadership’s wish not to legislate for an in/out referendum!

Compare the Lib Dem consistency with the Tory inconcistency. Here’s David Cameron, just 18 months ago in the Commons, responding to a Tory MP demanding an in/out referendum:

The Prime Minister: I wondered how long we would take to reach that issue. I believe that this is the most important use of a referendum: if there is a proposal for this House of Commons, or any Government, to pass powers from this House to somewhere else, we should ask the British people first. That, for me, in a parliamentary democracy, is the right use of a referendum. However, as we are not signing a treaty, I think that the whole issue of a referendum does not arise.

David Cameron was right 18 months ago. He’s wrong now. He was right in 2006 to chide his party for always ‘banging on about Europe’. He’s wrong now.

Anyway, here’s pretty much the full and unexpurgated speech Martin Horwood gave yesterday. It may be long, but it’s well worth a read — and not just by Lib Dems.

As a Liberal Democrat, I like referendums—and we have been consistent supporters of them. We supported all the referendums on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We were quite happy with the referendum on the European Community in 1975, and we even went along with the referendum on AV—the alternative vote system—although we obviously cannot win them all. At the time of the Lisbon treaty, we alone supported an in/out referendum for this country—not at four years’ remove, not for some future Parliament, but at that time. We got absolutely no support from the Conservative party at that stage.

I am afraid that that was the completely consistent position through to the general election of 2010, and it is more or less our position now. The Deputy Prime Minister has set out our position, the only difference being that in the meantime we have passed the European Union Act 2011, which rather watered down the Liberal Democrat commitment to an in/out referendum and adopted—[Interruption.] Conservative Members may laugh, but they have obviously not read their own manifesto of 2010. What is in the European Union Act 2011 is precisely the basis on which Conservative Members fought the last general election, which was the idea that there should be a trigger relating to the transfer of power. The Conservative manifesto stated that in the event of a transfer of power from the British level to the European level, a referendum on that transfer would be held. That is exactly what went into the European Union Act in 2011. We will quite happily use that to trigger—that is fine—but we are still committed to an in/out referendum, and I am still going to argue for one. …

The consistent position the Liberal Democrats have taken is to be in favour of an in/out referendum either at a time of major, fundamental treaty change or at a time of a transfer of power, which also has to happen under treaty provisions. That is the consistent position we have taken, and that is the position we still take today. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) want to point out when we have said anything different? She does not; I thought as much.

The Conservative party, by contrast, has taken a bewildering variety of positions on referendums. I think it was the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who is no longer in his place, who pointed out that Margaret Thatcher opposed the original European referendum and she quoted Clement Attlee saying referendums were a device of demagogues and dictators. At that point she was a supporter of European Union membership, which at that stage was already identified as a discussion about social and political union as well as about access to an economic common market. That is clear from the literature produced in that referendum campaign. It talks about the new regional fund, the social fund, bringing the peoples of Europe closer together and promoting peace and freedom—so even the defence and security aspects of the EU’s work were already being debated. Margaret Thatcher said that for the Labour party the proposal of a referendum was

“a tactical device to get over a split in their own party.”—[Official Report, 11 March 1975; Vol. 888, c. 306.]

I think history might be repeating itself now. … In the 1990s John Major was in favour of a referendum, but only on membership of the euro. By 2001, that had changed and then we had an evolution of a policy that was really about—

Tim Loughton rose—

Martin Horwood: I had better not give way repeatedly, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman for one final time.

Tim Loughton: I am sorry that the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party was not able to flip a few lentil burgers last night to entice more of his colleagues to take part in this important debate. Will he just clarify his position? In the highly unlikely event that we have a Liberal Democrat Government after the next election, and this Bill, as is most likely, has been passed in this Parliament, would they abolish the undertakings that this Bill would give to tie us to a referendum, and thus give the British people a say at last?

Martin Horwood: I have already spelled out very clearly our position, which is exactly the same one as we took at the time of the Lisbon treaty and of the last election: at a time of treaty change, fundamental change or a transfer of power from the British to the European level, we would want an in/out referendum, and we would legislate to make that possible in the event of our having a majority in Parliament.

The Conservative position has flip-flopped dramatically. The position in the Conservative manifesto was enacted in the European Union Act 2011, yet within a year and a few months the Prime Minister was expounding a completely different position. Even that has changed between his speech and this Bill, because the question has changed from whether to remain in the European Union to whether to be in the European Union. …

The chances of the Conservative party getting as far as 2017 without changing its policy again are pretty slim. Let me reinforce that point. Only 19 months ago, the Prime Minister said:

“That, for me, in a parliamentary democracy, is the right use of a referendum. However, as we are not signing a treaty, I think that the whole issue of a referendum does not arise.”

He continued by saying that

“there is a role for referendums in a parliamentary democracy, but that comes at the moment when a Government or a Parliament proposes to give up power, rather than at other times.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 535-549.]

That is precisely the Liberal Democrat position and has been for some time.

We are not going to oppose this Bill, but we are not content to support it because there is a long list of problems with it. Legislation already in force—the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—is supposed to lay down the procedure under which we hold referendums and, for example, the role of the Electoral Commission in helping to determine the question. This Bill is pre-empting any decision by the Electoral Commission and it does not even appear to comply or be consistent with the 2000 Act. I do not know whether the draftsmen had forgotten that that Act existed. …

The Bill also needs to deal with a problem relating to the franchise. Some 1.4 million British citizens reside elsewhere than in the UK, but according to the terms of the Bill the referendum will be based on the Westminster franchise. As far as I can tell, that has only about 19,000 registered overseas voters, so more than 1 million Britons, whose lives will be fundamentally affected by this change—they are British passport holders resident in other parts of the EU—will be disfranchised in this referendum. By this formula, the Bill will give votes to Cypriot and Maltese citizens living in this country, because under the Westminster franchise Commonwealth citizens have the vote, but it will not give the vote to French, Italian or German citizens. So there are a lot of inconsistencies, and this issue has not been debated at all so far.

The House of Commons Library briefing also raised the question of whether or not the Bill is even legally binding. Even the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) has conceded that this parliamentary vote would not bind its successor Parliament and further parliamentary votes, probably on secondary legislation, would be required to give effect to the referendum in any case. …

The problems continue. The uncertainty that the Bill creates for business is clear, even if we make a number of big assumptions about the referendum process: first, that the Conservative Front Bench will not change its position between now and 2017, but having changed it three times in two years, that is a big assumption; secondly, that the timetable for the referendum does not have to be changed in any case, although we may find in 2017 that we are in the middle of a renegotiation or treaty change process resulting from changes in the eurozone, and at such a juncture, it would be nonsense to hold a referendum, as another referendum might be provoked in only a matter of months or years, so we would not really know what we were voting for in those circumstances; and finally, if the political landscape had not completely changed in any case we might have a different Government with different priorities and there might be a recovery in the European economy, and we may find votes for the UK Independence party subsiding and that Europe is not quite such a big priority—it is not a terribly big priority for most voters according to existing polls—so the idea of spending yet more hundreds of hours of parliamentary time banging on about Europe might not seem quite as appealing.

Even if all of that is true, and we move towards a referendum by 2017, that still condemns British business and British jobs to four years of uncertainty—what a message to send to investors. The CBI is quoted in the Independent newspaper, i, this morning, and raises the problem of the uncertainty caused for British business:

“British businesses don’t want to find themselves at the margins of the world’s largest trading bloc operating under market rules over which they have no influence.”

That is the prospect that we are going to live with, unresolved, apparently for up to four years. That is one of the problems with the Bill. This morning, The Daily Telegraph, I think, quoted the leader of the Norwegian Conservative party, who pointed out that the supposed solution of the UK trying to have a status more or less equivalent to Norway’s was worse than being in the EU. Norway pays hundreds of billions of euros to the European Union for access to the single European market, and finds out about the rules through so-called fax democracy.

There are many, many problems with the Bill, which does not really resolve the main question. It is, as we all really know—rather like Harold Wilson’s Bill in the 1970s—about papering over the cracks in the Conservative party itself. It will not really work. The Prime Minister has spelled out a reasonably modest set of ambitions for renegotiation that will never satisfy many of his Back Benchers, who clearly want to use a much more ambitious and unilateral agenda for negotiation as something that will provide them with an excuse to campaign for exit.

UK businesses have access to free trade in the world’s largest single market, worth nearly £11 trillion in gross domestic product, with over 500 million consumers. One in 10 British jobs are linked to the single market. Some £495 billion-worth of British trade is with other EU member states. …

Even if hon. Members do not listen to me, and even if they do not listen to the leader of the Norwegian Conservative party, or even the CBI, perhaps they should just listen to what the Prime Minister himself said in that speech. In the end he moved on to the main question, which is whether in an in/out referendum we would be campaigning to stay in or out. The Prime Minister said:

“Of course Britain could make her own way in the world, outside the EU, if we chose to do so. So could any other Member State. But the question we will have to ask ourselves is this: is that the very best future for our country?”

He went on:

“Continued access to the Single Market is vital for British businesses and British jobs…being part of the Single Market has been key to that success…There are some who suggest we could turn ourselves into Norway or Switzerland—with access to the single market but outside the EU. But would that really be in our best interests?

I admire those countries and they are friends of ours—but they are very different from us. Norway sits on the biggest energy reserves in Europe, and has a sovereign wealth fund of over 500 billion euros. And while Norway is part of the single market—and pays for the principle—it has no say at all in setting its rules: it just has to implement its directives.”

The Prime Minister obviously is not really willing to risk millions of British jobs by voting no. This is a delaying tactic to get us past the next election. The Liberal Democrats are not willing to risk millions of British jobs by voting no. Europe means jobs, and we should not put those jobs in jeopardy.

* 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.