At a time when people pick up their phones and spend their own money voting week in week out to keep their favourite contestants in programmes like Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor, it will baffle some that the Government is so keen to prevent them having their chance to vote on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.
Almost two-thirds of the United Kingdom electorate have never even had the opportunity to vote on this issue. The House of Commons Library has calculated that the estimated number of those alive today who voted ‘yes’ back in 1975 is approximately 8 million. This represents just 16% of the current voting-age population – leaving a staggering 84% who have never voted in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the EU. If I was a betting man, I would say that it would be worth a punt on the fact that some of those who voted ‘yes’ have since changed their minds too.
I have secured a debate today on a motion that would enable a referendum to be held that would give voters a choice as to whether we carried on as we were with our current relationship with the EU, came out of the EU altogether or re-negotiated our terms of membership.
My personal opinion is that Britain would be better off out of the European Union – to paraphrase William Hague’s well known position: I want to be in Britain and run by Britain. However, this debate is not about my views at all. It is about what millions of my fellow countrymen and women want. I am proposing that the referendum would have 2 options to stay in and 1 to come out. The debate about the rights or wrongs of our membership is for another day – tomorrow’s debate is simply about Parliament giving voters up and down the country the chance to have their say.
I see this situation as rather like boarding a slow train going in one direction. Then, just as you are settling in, that slow train starts careering off at high speed in a completely different direction, adding on carriages left, right and centre. You are locked in and have no way of getting off. Worse still, the longer you are on the train the more the fare goes up but there is nothing you can do about it as negotiation with the guards and the driver is virtually non-existent.
I am suggesting that we stop the train for a minute so that the passengers can find out where they are now and where they are going. Then they can make a choice about whether or not they really want to go to the destination they can now see clearly marked on the front of the train, whether they want to go back to where they came from – or even if they want to return to a stop they passed along the way.
When the 16% of the current British electorate voted ‘yes’ over a third of a century ago, they voted to join a Common Market. Yet what they signed up to has led to the huge loss of our sovereignty. In fact, as of today, around half the laws in this kingdom are made in Brussels and not Westminster. That alone is more than a good enough reason to justify asking the British people now what they think of Britain’s future relationship with Brussels.
One of the main arguments against allowing a referendum appears to be that now is not the “right time” to have this vote. I think by anybody’s standards waiting 36 years for the “right time” is long enough. In any event the motion only calls on the Government to introduce a Bill next year and the date of the referendum can be decided then. Another argument people use against having a referendum is that it is not really a big issue and some people try to dismiss the whole matter of the EU as being irrelevant. Voters know know that the European Union has its tentacles everywhere whether they want it to or not. They are getting angry at being fobbed off by the political elite who just do not want them to have their say.
Many more than 100,000 people have signed a petition calling for a referendum. However, the Government’s reaction to this “little issue” is perhaps the most telling of all. This is definitely not a “little” issue. This is THE big issue. The EU affects our economy, our immigration policy, our foreign policy and much more besides – in a nutshell, it affects our way of life and our ability to control our own destiny.
It saddens me deeply that David Cameron appears to have decided that Conservative MPs’ will not be allowed a free vote in today’s debate. The message this sends out is that it is not only the public who cannot be trusted but that MPs cannot be trusted either. I agree wholeheartedly with my colleague Graham Brady MP, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbench MPs, who has said that there should be a free vote on this issue and the latest polls show that by a huge margin the vast majority of the British people agree with this too.
MPs’ on all sides know that they will have to justify their actions to the electors (current or future given the forthcoming boundary changes) and their own party members. If my fellow MPs’ join me in voting to give the British people a say through a referendum they can do so with a clear conscience knowing they will have a very large majority of the British public on their side.
Our constituents deserve their say on our relationship with the European Union. Now is the time to pave the way for that historic referendum.
This important vote will be a public record of MPs’ views forever so if they make the wrong choice they will not be allowed to forget it easily.
If my fellow MPs’ join me in voting to give the British people a choice in a referendum they can do so with a clear conscience knowing they will have a very large majority of the British people on their side.
> Also on ConHome today: David Lidington MP, Europe Minister, makes the case against David Nuttall's motion