Friday, 10 April 2015

Thatcher, Europe & Referendum

Amongst politicians who proudly declare themselves ‘Thatcherites’, there is one policy that has become almost sacred – namely, to precipitate the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union by holding a referendum on the issue. Ironically, it was Margaret Thatcher who most cogently set out the argument, regardless of whether one were pro or anti remaining in Europe, against deciding the matter by means of a referendum.

She did this when she was the Leader of the Opposition in 1975 when the then Labour Government proposed a referendum to decide if the UK should stay or leave the then EEC (European Economic Community). It shows that sometimes when they are unencumbered by power, politicians can be quite effective in questioning the powerful:

“On all major matters the essential task of government is decision. That does not mean absence of argument or absence of some differences. It means the capacity to reach a decision after argument and consideration, and sticking to it or resigning.

We now face the new system. If the Government cannot agree, gone is the discipline of resignation, gone is the principle of accountability to Parliament. The new doctrine is to pass the buck to the people.

… Perhaps the late Lord Attlee was right when he said that the referendum was a device of dictators and demagogues.

The treaty [with Europe] has been in operation for over two years. I know of no country in the Western World in which a referendum has been used to override a treaty obligation which had been through all its parliamentary stages and had been in operation for two years. Such a step would have a damaging effect on Britain's standing in the world. …

We know … the present Prime Minister was firmly against a referendum. But problems and divisions were arising in his own party, and one group of dissenters campaigned for a referendum. We accept that any hon. Member who holds strong views on the legislation itself is entitled to propose any method which he chooses to defeat it. But when Cabinets and Shadow Cabinets come to deliberate, they should bear in mind all the constitutional consequences of the course of action proposed to be slow to undermine cherished principles which have served liberty well for a long time.

It is quite possible to put a democratic case for having referendum provisions. If a referendum is put forward seriously as a constitutional instrument, we should need to consider the different kinds of referenda involved and what they implied for the present rules and conventions of our political order.

Assuming that we wanted the referendum provisions to apply only to constitutional questions, we should try to define what that means in a British context—an extraordinarily difficult exercise. If we wanted to avoid leaving the decision on whether to have a referendum to the whim of future Governments, we should have to think of some means of limiting its powers.

This White Paper has come about because of the Government's concern for internal party interests. It is a licence for Ministers to disagree on central issues but still stay in power. I believe that the right course would be to reject it and to consider the wider constitutional issues properly and at length.”

(40 years on from that speech by Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons on 11 March 1975, ardent Thatcherites from Cameron to Farage should take note from their political idol when she had so comprehensively exposed the pitfalls of resorting to referenda).

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