Ming Campbell went firmly on the record today to affirm his view that a referendum on the EU reform treaty was - in his words - “not necessary”. It was entirely the wrong way to make a perfectly valid point.
Why was he wrong?
Words matter. “Not necessary”. Jars a bit, doesn’t it? It’s an altogether too lawyerly phrase - because, of course, a referendum on the EU reform treaty isn’t necessary, any more than it was necessary to have a referendum on the Maastricht treaty... But, back in 1992, the Lib Dems campaigned for such a referendum just the same. It’s also - how can I put this? - a little bit patrician. Ming didn’t actually say, “Don’t worry your little heads about it, the grown-ups will sort this out,” but, frankly, he might as well have done.
Why was he right?
He’s got a point. A referendum would be a complete red herring, a painless way for the electorate to kick the EU in the shins without actually squaring up for the big fight - do we want in, or out? If the electorate said yes to the treaty - a slim possibility - it might quell the Tory right’s xenophobia for a short while; but it wouldn’t be long before they found another pretext for kicking up rough.
If the electorate said no… well, then what? Any bright ideas? Anyone got a clue what precisely it was we said no to? Of course not. All it would prove is that the British people are a bit narked with the EU at the minute. I think we can all work out that for ourselves without the need for a referendum.
What he should have said:
Ming was close. He actually had a good answer, concealed within his legalese: “if we were to have a referendum, then it is worth considering a more fundamental referendum, in a sense of being in or out.” I agree. But, oh, the vagueness! Oh, the conditional clauses! “If”, “worth considering”, “in a sense” - it was like Charlie Kennedy’s Second Coming.
He could have said it so much better:
“Those who call for a referendum on the EU reform treaty are disingenuous. It’s a complete red herring to pretend that such a limited vote would settle, once and for all, Britain’s position within Europe.
“Let’s be honest with ourselves: we’re reaching a crunch point. The EEC the British people voted to join has changed almost beyond recognition in the last 30 years. The politicians should wake up to that fact, and recognise why the public feels so left out of the debate.
“I am a passionate internationalist and pro-European. But I believe we must take the British people - indeed, all the peoples of Europe - with us on this journey. I don’t want a vote on a treaty which tinkers round the edges. It’s time for a new referendum, time to give a new generation the opportunity to debate what my generation debated back in 1975.
“Does Britain want to play a full part in the European Union as it is today; or do we want to sit on the sidelines? That’s the key to this whole debate.
“Labour prefers to ignore the issue, hopes it will simply go away. It won’t. The Tories are desperate to paper over the cracks in their party’s unity, clinging to a referendum like a drowning man clings to driftwood. They’re missing the point.
“Only the Lib Dems are prepared to say it like it is: it’s time for a national debate, time once again for the British people to make up their minds, and decide the ultimate question: do we want to be in the EU or not?”