In life, with voluntary relationships there is a clear line between the length of a relationship and the one’s attachment to it. I have felt those 32 years acutely in the last few months as I have reflected on my own position with respect to the Liberal Democrats position on Brexit and the need for a second referendum. But in arriving at my decision to vote against the Lib Dem position I feel that it is the fact that I am a Lib Dem – a pro-European to my core - that makes this the right thing to do.
First, let me set out why the argument that we need a second referendum because people did not know the destination, is implausible. People never know the destination of a course of action when they vote in a referendum – one can plausible argue that the Lib Dems, Labour or Tory voters who supported devolution for Scotland in 1998 could not have imagined an SNP government – in fact they had been told in terms that the voting system proposed for Scottish elections was designed expressly not to give any single party an overwhelming majority – yet that is precisely what they have got.
Staying with the EU, in 1994 we were the first political party in this country to propose that the UK join the forthcoming single currency which was launched in 2001. Had the UK joined on the back of a referendum, even with the best crystal ball, we could not have known that the Euro would be in such dire straits within its first decade. The financial crisis, the Greek debt crisis and the woes of Spain, Portugal and Ireland could not, and were not, foreseen when we proposed repeatedly to give people their say. People can only make a decision based on the information available when asked. Last year there was reams of information – report after think-tank report and government papers – so the information was there for the public to see. The Electoral Commission’s leaflet sent to every household in the land stated in stark terms ‘This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide’.
Moreover, voting to make good the pledge in the Brexit referendum is the right thing for a Lib Dem to do. Lib Dems have long argued specifically for an In-Out referendum. In February 2008, the Lib Dems tried to amend the passage of the Lisbon Treaty in the House of Commons by putting down an amendment for an In-Out referendum on the EU, whereas the other parties had promised referendums on the Lisbon Treaty and not delivered. When it was not granted, they walked out of the Commons chamber in protest.
Again while in government we were responsible for the 2011 Referendum Act. This law, now on the statute book, commits the UK to a referendum if any more significant powers or competencies are passed to the EU .… ever. I am so convinced that the demands of EU integration will result in a UK referendum due to this act that as I was leading on this bill for the Lib Dems, I tried unsuccessfully to insert a ‘sunset’ clause so that the act would expire without renewal if a new government decided it was impractical. It was folly to legislate to govern through periodic referendums or alternatively to hold the EU back from necessary steps to make changes they need to deepen integration.
The point I am making is that our policy and practice have made us support and legislate for ‘In-Out’ or other EU measures to be put to the people. The government have done that, but we now believe that people didn’t understand the implications so we should consult them again when we have a clearer idea. There are several problems with this. First, we won’t have a clearer idea of the most important thing – what the UK economy will look like - after leaving. That will only become apparent in the next decade or more as the future relationship and new trade deals are in the longer-term future. So the people will still not have a clear idea in two years.
But more importantly it will be so completely contradictory to what the EU, the other 27 countries envisage in terms of their understanding of A50 – that in effect that it is politically unrevokable. There is no longer any possibility of a negotiation where the UK could go into the talks again with a set of demands on the proviso that if they are not good enough, we would have another referendum. I say ‘again’ and ‘another’ as we have already done that.
After the 2011 Referendum Act, David Cameron said in January 2013 that if the Conservatives won an election outright, they would negotiate a new settlement with the EU for the UK, and hold an In-Out referendum on that. So the EU has been living under the threat of a UK referendum since 2011. The Tories won in 2015 and spent a year negotiating with the EU, securing what I think was a very good settlement. However, we were not able to sell that to the people, and here we are. The EU has seen the latest bout of UK inspired disruption for six years now, with a further two at least to go. The idea that we can try the same thing again and again shows a profound misunderstanding of how the EU works, and ignorance of our partners’ patience and preoccupations. They will not go into an A50 negotiation or give us any serious terms if they believe we will prolong the agony – theirs and ours, in the risk that we might have the same result. In fact the contrary is likely to happen as there is already a view across the channel that what we were offered last year was too generous. So to stop others from using the same ploy, we are like to lose some of our opt-outs and special exemptions. To keep united, they need us to move on, so they can resolve the myriad problems confronting them and us.
If the Lib Dem amendment passes, the Government would be better advised not to trigger A50 at all. Perhaps that is what the country needs, but it is not what it wants. I for one will vote on some of the amendments I think the A50 act needs, like ongoing parliamentary scrutiny of the terms and a final vote. But I do not intend to go for another referendum after another negotiation. We may be in danger of exhausting what goodwill exists on both sides. So in sorrow, I will be going into another lobby from my political family after decades together, but my heart will be with them, even if my head guides me otherwise.