I am old enough – just – to remember Britain’s one and only referendum on whether we should remain a member of what was then called the Common Market, back in 1975. Having decided that we should, Britons watched as the Common Market became the European Economic Community, then the European Community, and finally the European Union.
A Europe-wide free trade area has become a sprawling political union, drawing huge economic and social power to its centre. Even with an elected European Parliament, there are more than 20 unelected EU Commissioners, including the foreign policy supremo, our own Baroness Ashton – who only recently was lecturing Hosni Mubarak on the need for democratic reform, while the organisation she represents dithered horribly over what to do in practical support of the popular uprisings across north Africa and the Middle East.
For good or ill, depending on your view, the trajectory of the European Union has had – and will continue to have – major constitutional implications for each member state. But the point is that unless you are at least in your mid-fifties, you have never been asked to approve any of them: there has been an extraordinary lack of accountability. From the Maastricht Treaty to the Lisbon Treaty, politicians in opposition promised referendums, but once in power reneged on those promises. The Irish were allowed a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, but having had the temerity to vote against, were then obliged to vote again until they managed to get it right. In Britain today, the political class allows us referendums in order to cement political deals among themselves, such as over a new voting system. But it balks at allowing people to vote on issues of any greater constitutional import than, say, the handing of greater powers to the Welsh Assembly – a recent referendum that was remarkable only for its derisory turn-out.
That is why, this week, a cross-party group is launching a campaign called The People’s Pledge, aimed at making politicians give us the referendum a majority of people clearly want. This new campaign breaks with tradition because it comes primarily from the Left, includes Labour MPs such as John Cryer and Kelvin Hopkins, trade unionists and Greens, such as Jenny Jones, the party’s candidate for London Mayor. Authors and writers – Fay Weldon, John King and Virginia Ironside – have come on board as well. Of course, many of our supporters want a referendum in order to vote “no” to continued EU membership, while others, such as Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, and Keith Vaz, the former Europe minister, are enthusiasts for the European Union – but agree that there should be a referendum. In the case of EU supporters such as Mr Vaz and John Stevens, the former Conservative MEP, it is a chance finally to “settle the argument”. But, given that The People’s Pledge is genuinely cross-party and non-party, Conservative MPs such as Douglas Carswell and Zac Goldsmith are involved. Goldsmith and Vaz, a somewhat unlikely pairing, are vice-chairmen of the newly formed Parliamentary “In/Out” group of MPs, who are also campaigning for a referendum on EU membership.
The People’s Pledge campaign is seeking to harness the power of the internet to target marginal constituencies and to get sitting MPs and candidates to declare they will support a referendum. Within 48 hours of our launch, some 20,000 people had logged on to make their pledge. So many, in fact, that our website crashed.
This week, some 61 per cent of voters told the polling company YouGov that they would like a referendum on membership of the European Union. When you break this figure down, a large number of Conservatives (77 per cent), Labour supporters (51 per cent) and Liberal Democrats (48 per cent) would like a vote. When asked if they would prefer a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU, or one on the AV voting system, 54 per cent favour the former, only 25 per cent the latter. It is genuinely difficult to see why Britain’s political class is so utterly resistant to what should be a straightforward exercise in democracy.
It will, of course, be tempting for the Establishment to ignore the strength of feeling that is so obviously out there, just as it will make for easy copy to dismiss this new campaign as being the property of the “usual suspects”. Sections of the liberal-Left media that gave such succour to New Labour and Tony Blair, that enthusiastically supported Nick Clegg until he dealt with the Tories (and who now exhort us to vote for a new electoral system that would probably have the effect of saving Clegg), will no doubt dismiss The People’s Pledge as a crusty collection of Little Englanders. They will be wrong. As well as traditional Conservative concerns about the shift of power from Westminster to Brussels, there is now a competing concern on the Left that the EU is set on a seemingly irreversible race to the bottom, with a complete free market in trade, free movement of labour and the privatisation of more or less everything, in the process shattering what is left of job security and the public services.
Before all that, and more, is set in stone, let’s have a referendum.
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph