Humour me for a moment. Instead of deciding whether you favour an EU membership referendum on the basis of which way you think it would go, ask yourself whether it is right in principle.
If this isn’t a suitable question to put to the country, it’s hard to think what is. It’s a major constitutional issue, of the kind that Bagehot, Dicey and Erskine May would have seen as suitable for a plebiscite. It divides the parties internally, and so can’t easily be settled at a general election. And – not least – all three parties were recently promising one.
People used occasionally to argue that referendums were un-British, that they might do for hot countries whose leaders wore sunglasses, but that they were incompatible with parliamentary sovereignty. That argument has been overtaken by events. Before 1997, the United Kingdom had held four referendums: one each in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the 1975 poll on EU membership. Since then, we have had a further 47, mainly at local level. It is asinine to insist that Britain needed a vote on the method by which we elect our MPs, but not on whether those MPs run the country.
When, as a result of a popular petition, Parliament was forced to divide on whether to give the country an In/Out vote, one of the three front benches objected to the idea in principle. How could they, having themselves recently promised European referendums of various kinds? Instead, they fell back on what we might call the Sir Humphrey objection: a creditable proposal in theory minister, but now is perhaps not the most propitious moment.
Then when is, for Heaven’s sake? The main parties used to argue that it was the wrong time for a referendum because Europe wasn’t an issue; now they argue that it’s the wrong time because Europe is an issue. No wonder people are cynical about politicians.
As Adam Holloway put in that debate: ‘I have to keep faith with the promises I made in Gravesham. This goes beyond Europe, beyond referendums. What’s at stake is the legitimacy of our representative institutions. Someone has to show that the system can work’.
Today, the People’s Pledge announces the most ambitious campaign ever to secure an In/Out referendum. It aims to show MPs in all parties that there is a premium in doing the right thing: that supporting a referendum carries an electoral reward. It is backed by supporters of every party and none, and by prospective ‘Yes’ as well as ‘No’ voters. I am confident that it will succeed: the momentum is now wholly one way.
For forty years, we’ve contracted out our European policies to ministers and mandarins. Look at where that has got us. It’s time to let the people decide.
If you’re a registered voter, please go to www.peoplespledge.org and register your support. And if you’re an MP or a candidate, don’t get side-tracked into arguments about what the Lib-Dems will wear or what precise words should appear on the ballot. Ask yourself the only question that really matters. Is it the right thing to do?