04 November 2009

Cast-Off Guarantee

Well, David Cameron's U-turn today was utterly predictable and completely inevitable, which leaves me wondering what he was playing at back on 26 September 2007 when he guaranteed the British people, via the Sun that now so openly supports him, that if he were to become Prime Minister he would hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

His words:
'But there's nothing "new" about breaking your promises to the British public. It's classic Labour.

And it is the cancer that is eating away at trust in politics. Small wonder that so many people don't believe a word politicians ever say if they break their promises so casually.

If you really want to signal you're a break from the past, Prime Minister, do the right thing -- give the people the referendum you promised.

Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations.

No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum.'
And this was accompanied by his florid signature! This is the kind of gobbet Classics students cut their teeth on as a matter of course, so I'll refrain from shredding it now save to make three quick points.
  • Firstly, Brown had never given a guarantee that there would be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, signed on 13 December 2007 following negotiations which began in June 2007, based on the discarded text of the abandoned Constitutional Treaty.
  • Secondly, it's madness to say that no treaty should be ratified with the people having first been directly consulted, given that -- if my hasty counts are right -- 42 treaty command papers have been presented to Parliament already this year, 28 were presented last year, and 65 the year before. Does he envisage weekly referendums?
  • Finally, it's delightfully ironic that Cameron should have accused Labour of breaking a promise it hadn't made, before going on to make an explicit and unabiguous promise that he would himself go on to break.
Of course, nobody will care, because circumstances have changed since 2007, and it's very easy to claim that there's not really any sensible way Cameron could keep his word now, given that the Lisbon reforms are now part of EU law.

The thing is, it seems obvious that Cameron had made that promise in complete confidence that it meant nothing; it was surely designed to get the common-or-garden English Europhobe onside, for a couple of years at any rate, and was never intended to be kept. He obviously hoped that the Irish, or the Poles, or the Czechs, or somebody else would do his dirty work for him and derail the Union's attempt to streamline its workings while making them more transparent*; if they failed, and passed the treaty, well, it wouldn't be hard to simply say that now that the Treaty had come into force, it'd be impossible to put it to the people.

This isn't quite true, as it happens. It's not quite impossible. There is a precedent, of sorts. In 1975, despite having signed the Treaty of Rome, which explicitly set the signatory nations onto a path of 'ever closer union', the UK held a referendum on whether or not they should withdraw from that treaty. The question that was asked was, quite simply, 'Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?

The pamphlet that the government issued at the time featured the following point:
'Fact No. 3. The British Parliament in Westminster retains the final right to repeal the Act which took us into the Market on January 1, 1973. Thus our continued membership will depend on the continuing assent of Parliament.'
There's no reason why this couldn't be done again. Cameron could offer the British a fresh referendum, asking essentially the same question as in 1975: 'Do you think the UK should stay in the European Union?'

If people voted no, well, then Parliament, which remains sovereign in these matters -- as the German and Czech constitutional courts have reiterated over the last year -- could repeal the Accession Act and the various acts that have implemented subsequent European treaties. And then the UK could leave the common market. Lisbon even gives them a mechanism for doing so.

* Lisbon really does make the Union more transparent, by the way, despite nonsensical claims from the likes of the Sun about how future EU decisions will all be made behind closed doors. It requires Commission directives to be scrutinised by national parliaments before going to the Council, and requires the Council to vote publicly. The fact that the Council -- the Union's main decision-making body -- has hitherto voted in secrecy is very useful for governments which want somewhere else to apportion blame, as unpopular decisions can be blamed on 'Europe' and 'faceless Brussels bureaucrats'. Given this, it's hardly surprising that a prospective governing party, especially in a country with a rabidly xenophobic media, should be opposed to such transparency.


Tom said...

It's a rubbish claim that Cameron broke any promise. When he pledged to hold a referendum on the treaty before ratifying it, this was in the context of an impending election - an election that ended up not happening. Since the election was bottled, Cameron and Hague have been very clear on the fact that if the treaty would come to be ratified, the situation would be different and there would be a different Tory policy to match. And indeed up til last week they had done everything in their power to bring about a referendum on the constitutional treaty - sadly prevented by the votes or lack thereof of treacherous Labour MPs and fence-sitting Lib Dem ones. And now it isn't a treaty any more, it's a full-blown constitution which cannot be unpicked by one single nation - the only sort of referendum that can really be offered at this point is "should we stay in or get out".

On the subject of an 'in or out' referendum - while I would like one of those, and I'm sure many in the UK would also, it is quite a different matter, and it is sadly not one the mainstream parties of Westminster are yet ready to delve into. But I think Cameron's first term pledges on Europe are a good start in that direction.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Firstly, although context is generally king, if you go back and read Cameron's Sun pledge, you'll see that there's no hint of any context: it was an unambiguous and timeless promise, and it has been broken.

Second, there's simply no proof at all that an election was impending in 2007. Brown may have considered calling one, and the Conservatives may have wanted one, but that doesn't mean it was ever on the cards. The Conservatives, of course, was screeching for an election because they care less about the British constitution than they do about political opportunism: they seemed to be saying that it was somehow inappropriate that the Prime Minister should have been selected by the governing party, as has happened for, well, rather a long time.

It seems odd that you say that Cameron was still fighting for a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty until last week, given that the Constitutional Treaty was ditched two years ago. The Lisbon Treaty, before you object, is different from the Constitutional Treaty in no fewer than 35 respects, some of which are very serious.

It's also not true to say it's now a full-blown constitution rather than a treaty. The Lisbon Treaty is still a treaty. It's lodged - or shall be lodged - with the UN as one.

If you simply mean that its reforms have now entered into EU law, yes, that's fair enough, but again, it's nonsense to say this is a full-blown constitution. The EU no more has a constitution now than it did twelve years ago. Like Amsterdam and Nice, all Lisbon has done is reform the two key existing treaties of the EU, both of which were signed up to by Britain under Conservative governments.