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No referendum

Mark Mardell | 10:36 UK time, Monday, 8 October 2007

The referendum campaigners’ last best hope has just vanished. Not that those who want a referendum on the European Reform Treaty will shut up shop and go home. Far from it. The campaign will intensify and reach something of a peak over the next few weeks. And perhaps that is at least one reason why their moment may have passed.

brown_bbc_203.jpgI’m writing of course about Gordon Brown’s decision not to hold an autumn election. Had he decided to “bring it on” there was a slim chance that he might just have promised a referendum to remove the subject from an election. Some politicians in Britain do believe in referendums for their own sake. Mr Brown is not one of them, and as a rule of thumb prime ministers in the UK only offer referendums to remove an issue from an election, or to solve internal party strife. Brown didn’t want a referendum and I personally didn’t think he would be pushed. But it was just possible. Now I can see no reason why he would grant one.

The election would have been fought against the background of a European Union summit that would have been held two weeks before polling day. It would have been a real headache for Mr Brown. Would he go to Lisbon and make a fuss that most would realise was rather drummed up for domestic reasons? Would he snub an important summit on grounds of the election, laying himself open to charges he was ignoring vital British interests? Would he have gone and agreed to the treaty and laid himself open to the wrath of the Sun and the Telegraph? It would be inevitable that for a few days at least Europe would be at the top of the election agenda. And no-one, not the cleverest strategist, politician or journalist, can really guess how an issue would play after that. It could just fade and be replaced by a row about taxation or health. But it could run, on and off, right up to polling day, poisoning the atmosphere.

cameron_pa_203.jpgThe Conservatives were going to make Europe an election issue. One source told me it would be among their top five or six issues. William Hague is scarred by the failure of his “Save the Pound” election and would have been cautious. But it would be easy to raise the issue of trust and easy to sum up several complex arguments about the treaty as “He’s giving more power to Brussels”. It occurred to me that perhaps this was an important factor in not holding an election. It wouldn’t of course be the only one, or main one, but it would have been part of the mixture that could have turned toxic for the Prime Minister. I see Jackie Ashley in the Guardian suggests not only the Murdoch press but the man himself may have played a vital role in shaping Mr Brown's decision.

The whole affair will mean that we will know even less in the future about the decision-making process in government. You just can’t tell the children that you might decide something. They need certainty when mummy and daddy have had their private discussions. The whole affair shows how little room politicians have to think. They can’t be allowed to semi-publicly mull over a decision.

There is little doubt that Brown’s most senior lieutenants were talking up the idea of an early election and getting journalists to write it up. But we hacks are obsessed by dates. One reason: journalism is about facts, making the unknown known. But elections also directly effect our lives, with weeks of intense work, plans cancelled, weekends put to one side, and so when they are is a matter of intense personal interest.

But it is also true that the media needs this narrative. For some reason they fell for the line that this stunningly cunning politician would be a low-octane charisma-less failure as PM. When he wasn’t, they were more impressed by the image shift than they should have been. So they need a reason to declare the honeymoon over. This is it. I rather think it will have put Mr Brown off speculation about votes in general, and that goes for a referendum too.

Comments   Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 12:31 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • Max Sceptic wrote:

This 'stunning cunning' politician has shown himself to be both cowardly and inept. Refusing a referendum on the new EU treaty will publicly demonstate that he is also disingenuous.

  • 2.
  • At 12:34 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • John wrote:

The British people do need the support of their Parliament to get a referendum on the transfer of powers that rightfully belong to them to EU institutions that we cannot remove through our votes. All three main parties promised a referendum on this EU Constitution in 2005 meaning that almost all current MPs were elected on a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum. The leadership of Labour and the unfortunately- named Liberal Democrats may have decided they cannot trust the people but one must hope there are enough backbench MPs prepared to keep the promises on which they ran for office such as to defeat this unwanted treaty. Democracy has reached an all-time low in this country if politicians can say one thing to get elected and then do the opposite in office with impunity.

  • 3.
  • At 01:52 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • brian wrote:

Gordon Brown reminds me of T.S. Eliot's "McCavity the mystery cat" for when something goes belly up, there's no sign of Gordon. SO there is no surprise that he bottled out.

For those who haven't read "McCavity", here's a small excerpt.....

And when the Foreign Office finds a Treaty's gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scap of paper in the hall or on the stair--
But it's useless to investigate--Macavity's not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
"It must have been Macavity!"--but he's a mile away.

  • 4.
  • At 02:35 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • Nikolay wrote:

I guess if the British people really want to keep the power that belongs to them, a referendum on the voting system is more pressing need. After all a party can have a stable majority and form a government if only 35% of all voters gave it their support.
This sounds better Tory top priority. But somehow I cant see them going this way. Dream on Sir Menzies.

  • 5.
  • At 02:49 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • Paul V. Greenall wrote:

Not sure I agree with you Mark.

Firstly: The chances of an early election producing an EU referendum were miniscule. Brown would only have gone early if he was sure he would handsomely win. He would not, as has been shown, call an early election unsure of victory and hope an EU referendum would help him win. That’s what PMs do towards the end of their term, not half way through.

Secondly: Part of why Brown wanted an early election was to avoid the EU issue. He would have done this firstly, by drowning it out with other issues and secondly, because had Brown won, he would then have claimed the previous manifesto pledge to hold a referendum was now invalidated by the new manifesto, which would have been carefully worded to allow the “Reform Treaty” to be ratified via Westminster only.

Thirdly: With no early election, Brown will now have to face the public and Parliament over this issue time and time again, mindful that Labour’s election manifesto pledge to hold a referendum is still valid. Thus, he will now have a simple choice; honour that pledge or continue to mislead people.

All in all, I think not going early is much more awkward for Labour as people will have more opportunities to hold them to account and remind them of the promise they made. If like me you want to hold the Government to account over this issue, then visit:

  • 6.
  • At 04:44 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • Ben wrote:

I closely followed the 2005 referendums in France and The Netherlands. My impression was that hardly anyone had the time or the inclination to read and understand the whole of the Constitutional Treaty, and so most based their votes on what politicians told them. The NO side had a structural advantage because people only need 1 reason to vote no. But to vote YES you have to like everything in the Treaty.

I think it IS possible to have a meaningful referendum when the choice is very clear. Gordon Brown continues to promise a referendum if ever the government decides to join the euro. In this case the choice will be clear: Do you want to adopt the euro or keep the pound?

With the Treaty the choice is not at all clear. If we don't accept the new "Reform Treaty" does it mean we are happy to keep going forever more with the Nice Treaty or does it mean we want the UK to withdraw from the EU completely? Then like Norway we would have to comply with all the EU laws in any case, if we wanted to continue trading in the single market. But outside the EU we would have ZERO say in deciding what those laws should be.

At the end of the day the UK is a Parliamentary Democracy and we elect MPs to study these kind of complex issues, take all of the implications into consideration and then make a balanced decision on our behalf. This is what they are paid for! If we are not happy with the decisions that our MPs make then we should either vote for a different party or stand for election.

  • 7.
  • At 05:08 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • jean shaw wrote:

Brown is such a coward, not only has he chickened out on having an election but he is afraid of the opinion of the British electorate in relation to the EU Treaty.
He simply doesnt deserve to be the PM.

  • 8.
  • At 05:14 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • Lukas wrote:

As an Italian and EU-ropean, I would like to see a referendum in the UK. The referendum, however, should not be about the treaty but about the United Kingdom remaining in the Union. If the people say yes, you should adopt the treaty, join the borderless Schengen area, join the Euro and shut up for once. If the people say no, then you should leave the Union. This would be a very sad day but I am sure Europe would advance much quicker in building a common defence, foreign policy etc without Britain. I also find it interesting how a non European like Murdoch, can have such profound interest in influence in EU politics.

  • 9.
  • At 07:08 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

Gordon Brown will decide, the people will abide. The only thing that has changed since the divine right of kings are the names and faces of the rulers. Mr. Brown was not even elected under circumstances when the voters knew he would be their Czar, what gives him the right to make any concessions to anyone regarding what Britain will and will not be constrained to do? So what does this tell you about the health of Britain's democracy? Health? What health, it's dead, there is no democracy. Not when the peoples' power can and is being GIVEN AWAY by the arbitrary and capricious decisions of a ruling elite and the overwhelming majority of citizens has absolutely nothing to say about it. Is it a wonder that according to BBC 10% of the native population of Britain has emigrated to other countries? Yes, you have to wonder what is keeping the other 90% still there.

  • 10.
  • At 07:34 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • Marcel wrote:

It's truly an indictment that people are not rising up to defeat this scandalous powergrab of a treaty which effectively kills off national parliamentary democracy.

We are now facing the pseudo-benign dictatorship of the unelected crowd.

Shame on us all for allowing this to happen.

  • 11.
  • At 07:35 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • tom wrote:


A referendum is more likely now.

Brown is wounded, he won't be able to face down Murdoch.

He will either veto or postpone the Treaty - or call a plebiscite.

  • 12.
  • At 10:24 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • G Manson wrote:

If the committee, dominated by his own party's MPs, report tommorrow that the treaty is identical to the constitution ( as we all know it is) then how will he avoid a referendum.

Can he afford to be branded a brazen fibber by his own side or will he find a way to admit that maybe he was mislead as to the treaty's true content, a la Thatcher, and give us the promised vote.

  • 13.
  • At 02:10 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • Andy wrote:

"stunningly cunning politician"? Smug, sly, manipulative, uber-controlling maybe, but 'cunning' sounds too flattering? Gordo might believe his own PR - that he is simply BRILLIANT. Well maybe for those that can be spun, but even a dullard like Brown should realise you can't spin all the people all the time. He might have conned the intellectually weak media herd to think he's ever so clever (and should tax us blind as us proletariat are not to be trusted to spend our own money) and be surrounded with a smug, simpering coterie, but actually the British public is not as stupid as his chums think.

PS It's 'affected', not 'effected'.

  • 14.
  • At 06:08 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • michael brimacombe wrote:

Well said Lukas (8). I agree 100% with you. Let us decide once and for all with a referendum on whether to leave the EU.The UK wiil get on better if we leave and vice versa.

  • 15.
  • At 06:58 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • Paul wrote:

Luka, an italian, pro-european poster on this page offered the British a referendum on continued membership of the eu... Maybe this is something we should consider!? If the outcome is to withdraw - because a country such as ours doesn't like what we see, hear or get from this dysfunctional organisation, will be the country that will lead Europe to a new age of security, trading and prosperity. The eu is a 19th century solution to a 20th century problem.
And as an after thought - the Poles are taking a lead on us (maybe it is for their own domestic political survival) in equating stagnation with eu interference..

  • 16.
  • At 07:25 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • beverly johnson wrote:

Brown has no popular mandate, he inherited his post after frightening off any potential opposition. He tries to pretend he has nothing to do with Labour policy over the last 10 years. He refuses to offer himself for an election to see if he has the support of the voters and in the meantime he refuses to give us a referendum on the EU treaty which his own MPs say is the same as the Constitution.
This man is a dictator not a democrat and an Orange revolution is the only hope.

  • 17.
  • At 08:54 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • Dan wrote:

I do have some sympathy with the many continental Europeans who often comment that Britain should decide whether it wants to be in the EU or not (Lukas above). The treaty could be seen like this - take the deal on the table or don't but make a decision. However, it is difficult to see how this affects Schengen (as we are an island it is an entirely different position on border controls than with a land border) and the Euro - you can't help but think that the rest of the Europeans want us to join to bail out the mess that is the euro. We should be a lot more constructive re the EU but that does not mean giving up security (Schengen)and economic success (Euro)in order to chase a dream which has been shown in many of the countries in euroland to be somthing of an albatross around the neck of economic growth

  • 18.
  • At 09:06 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • Mike Dixon wrote:

What Ben says in 6 above is of course correct.

It is interesting to note that in all the comments about Europe no mention is made of Spain where I live. Spain also held a referendum on the European Constitution because this was mandatory under the Spanish Constitution. Perhaps this is because the Spanish voted YES when asked to do so by a new and popular government rather than because it was an issue. In France the opposite happened. A highly unpopular government campaigned for a 'Yes' vote so the France voted No more to put two fingers in the air at Paris than anything else.

The British problem with the E.U., one could almost say Europe, is a British problem. Simply put, it is this: Is Britain going to make the far reaching changes in the structure of Government and Institutions that are needed to become fully inegrated within Europe or not? If not, then the honest thing to do is stop pretending to be: 'At the heart of Europe'. and leave. But if you do, as Ben said, in order to continue to trade within the E.C. you will still have to comply with all E.U. Regulation, even the U.S.A. has to do that!

  • 19.
  • At 09:10 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • Colin Shanley wrote:

Brown has had his reputation as a stern, prudent and dour man totally smashed by the snap election fiasco. He will do all he can to try and rebuild that reputation.

So having appeared weak in his decision to U-turn on the election, the last thing he is going to want to do is to bow to pressure and U-turn on the referendum.

He has backed himself into a corner once more.

  • 20.
  • At 09:24 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • John wrote:

To Ben (6) who says that if we don’t like what MPs do we should vote for a different party: EVERY party that ran in the 2005 election promised a referendum on this issue. A treaty is not a law - we cannot elect a new government to modify it once ratified. Since Brown decided against securing a fresh mandate the only mandate he now has is that of the Labour Party's 2005 election manifesto. If Brown uses a 3-line whip to march his MPs into the lobby to vote against one of those key manifesto commitments on an issue which we cannot later elect a new government to change then it will be a very black day for British democracy. What worth then any a commitment in the next Labour manifesto to hold a referendum before joining the Euro? Or any other promise for that matter. They may as well not have a manifesto at the next election at all.

With all due respect Ben I think you underestimate the intelligence of French & Dutch voters. How can you claim they were duped into voting ‘Non’ and ‘Nee’ by politicians when almost the entire political establishment (plus all the media) was overwhelming on the side of a ‘Yes’ vote? Your belief that our MPs can be relied upon to study this issue and come to the right choice cannot be squared with remarks by MPs like Ken Clarke that they have never read the EU Constitution at all. You also ignore that most MPs are swayed by their short-term personal career interests, the patronage of their party leadership and possible alternative career options in Brussels if they demonstrate they are ‘good EUropeans’.

Also you are incorrect if you think EEA or EFTA members have to accept all EU law. EEA members (Norway, Iceland, etc) accept the obligation and cost of complying with only EU regulations related to the single market for goods, services, people and capital. These countries have the right to be consulted on this regulation but not to decision making. They are not bound by most of the EU’s social & employment legislation, and not at all by the common agriculture, fisheries, foreign, security, justice/home affairs policies, etc. nor of course in the additional ~60 policy areas that this Constitution/Reform treaty would transfer to Brussels. EFTA membership is similar to EEA but gives the Swiss more freedom to reject single market regulations in conformance with their tradition of direct democracy. The Swiss are not subject for example to that part of EU social & employment legislation that applies to EEA members. Switzerland pays a small amount to the EU budget estimated to be 1/9th the cost of EU membership. Both EEA and EFTA options allow free trade agreements with 3rd-parties that are not possible for EU members. EEA & EFTA members therefore have substantially lower costs and a degree of autonomy that increases with every step towards the undemocratic multinational federation that Continental elites seem determined to impose.

  • 21.
  • At 09:29 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • David wrote:

"The whole affair shows how little room politicians have to think. They can’t be allowed to semi-publicly mull over a decision."

Mark, I think this is a very important point, and one that Nick Robinson and your colleagues on the today programme need to think about.

You also say, "journalism is about facts", but today it is becoming more and more about speculation, prediction and attempting to set the agenda. I think this is an undesirable consequence of increased media competition (more channels) and changing technology (instant news).

To all those throwing words like 'coward' and 'bottler' around - thanks so much for raising the tone and contributing to the national debate in such a mature way.

  • 22.
  • At 09:54 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • Steve Peers wrote:

Response to comments 5 and 11:

Since Brown has said that an election in 2008 is 'unlikely', it must follow that a referendum is less likely too, since he is therefore planning to ensure ratification of the Treaty by the UK before the next election, and so will have no need to consider promising a referendum in order to avoid losing votes in the election. If the election is in May or June 2009, the Reform Treaty may well be in force by that point - and therefore it will be off the political agenda entirely. The only prospect of a referendum now is if a majority in the Commons or Lords votes for one.

  • 23.
  • At 10:26 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • Francis Deutsch wrote:

By all means lets have a referendum, but in 2 or more years. The Pro-Euro. organisation went to sleep after the Dutch-French referenda leaving the Little Englanders an uncontested field for their highly financed, popular press supported, but frequently inaccurate, propaganda.
Now let us level the playing field, run a strong, balanced, educational campaign and then let us see who is keen on a referendum!

  • 24.
  • At 10:28 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • Andy wrote:

A European island following the advice of an australian to become the 52nd state of the amusing is England becoming?

Yes to the referendum...but if the answer is no, out of the EU, for good.
If you english think this would be better for you, then live your dream to the end and pay the consequences for it.

Some issues probably should not be left to the people, specially when foreign and populist media have such a huge effect on them; but at the end you are still a democracy even if I don't know for how long.

  • 25.
  • At 11:33 AM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • DaveH wrote:

This whole referendum debate is a smokescreen, which happens to suit various groups. Cash and his chums want to leave, Cameron and his chums want a free trade area, so UK can stay joined to the US at the hip and others genuinely want to stop where we are. It is all nonsense however - we cannot keep up this endless refusal to advance the EU and expect to remain members of the club. We are on our way to being thrown out.

  • 26.
  • At 01:14 PM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • Patrick Reay Jehu wrote:

Very good contributions by Nikolay (4)and Ben (6). One of the problems is that most of the population of Britain is extremely poorly educated civically, historically and politically, as are many other people in Europe (e.g. France). This makes it easy for the politicians, who can appeal to atavistic feelings of nationalism and xenophobia when it suits them.

The Conservatives have themselves never held a referendum when they have been in power, and indeed opposed Wilson's on whether we should remain in the EEC in the 1970s. They never dreamt of holding one for the Single European Treaty in the 1980s or the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s. They wanted a referendum on the Euro a few years ago, but at the same time declared that they wouldn't hold one if they got back into power, as they had no intention of joining. So they only use the referendum as a political club, and almost certainly will abandon the idea if and when they return to power. The same is true of Labour of course, except for Wilson's in the 1970s.

There are plenty of matters on which it would be reasonable to hold referendums. The voting system, as already mentioned, fox hunting etc. (these might be held as local referenda, so that different districts or counties had different rules - Camden could thus vote no to blood sports there, whereas Mid-Devon for example might vote yes), and yes, the death penalty. The issues and arguments regarding these are relatively easy to understand, even for most of the undereducated British public, but matters as arcane and complex as the Reform Treaty, constitutions etc. are, in the present state of ignorance by the public, not appropriate for referendums.

  • 27.
  • At 03:00 PM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • Doug Salmon wrote:

Events seem to have moved on with the report of the European Scrutiny committee.
Can Brown really get away with not holding a referendum when even his own MPs are saying the Treaty is the same as the Constitution ?

  • 28.
  • At 10:18 PM on 09 Oct 2007,
  • Marcel wrote:

But Lucas (8): we (Netherlands) don't want any common foreign policy. As a matter of fact, our government guaranteed us there wouldn't be one. And we were also told there wouldn't be a common army either.

All these promises were made after the government shamelessly announced there'd be no referendum.

If they reverse their position on foreign policy and army then they will face a voters revolt and then we'd get our first ever Eurosceptic government.

This means: Dutch government cannot agree to your suggestion of common foreign policy or armed forced.

Seeing as the EU constitution would actually give the democratically elected EU parliament some say in matters, those who claim the constitution would harm democracy are only blinding themselves. It would be an improvement over the present situation.

Well said. I shall never give up hope!

First the British government should have the politeness to ask if the British people actually want to be in a political union but I guess that is thinking too idealistically!

Atfer that they can ask us about the rest of the treaties.

  • 32.
  • At 07:24 PM on 13 Oct 2007,
  • Robert wrote:

No referendum just means that democracy in this country has finally come to an end, which is a direct result of going into the EU in the first place!

  • 33.
  • At 12:26 PM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Neil wrote:

It is a pity that promises made by political parties at elections can be discarded for the sake of political expediency. I voted for the Labour Party on the express undertaking given by them to hold a redferendum. It is generally accepted now that the treaty is substantially the same as the constitution.
The way politicians so cynically betray such promises will only continue to pollute the political process and turn even more people off voting altogether. With turn outs at elections falling, we cannot afford such blase treatment of the electorate.

  • 34.
  • At 08:47 AM on 18 Oct 2007,
  • pam wrote:

Referring to the Dutch NO vote on the Referendum. It is not quite true that we did not know what the Treaty was all about and we were falsy informed by some politicians. It is because we KNEW what the treaty would entail that we voted against it. In the new form we are still AGAINST because too much power is going to Brussels. Local councils will lose the power to make their own judgements and have to wait for the approval of Brussels. Not to mention the bureaucracy and the costs of employing more EP ministers and staff, which money could be more effciently spend in the local councils,i.e. care, pollution, crime.

  • 35.
  • At 04:02 PM on 18 Oct 2007,
  • Sarah wrote:

If there were to be a referendum, I suspect that anti-EU people would want the wording to be something like, "Do you approve of the new EU treaty?" to which the reply would, of course, be "NO".

How would they respond to a referendum which required them to compare what we have now and the new treaty (i.e. do you prefer A or B?)? Do most of the British public have the faintest idea what the current and the post-treaty situations might be? Bear in mind that this is the great British public who (and believe) the Sun and the Daily Mail (although they would probably claim that they don't believe everything that they read in the papers),
2. are getting fatter and less fit at a rate of knots,
3. are buying bigger gas-guzzlers and then complaining about petrol prices and road congestion,
4. will say that the government ought to do something, and then complain about the nanny state
5. avoid giving their children the MMR innoculation when the science is clear,
and so on... I could go on.

I'm going to be accused of being politically incorrect for pointing out that most people know next to nothing about international politics and economics. Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me that the bloke who cut you up on the motorway, and the tarty woman who pushed in in front of you in the queue, and the parents who let their kids drop their burger packaging on to the pavement are perfectly able to explain complex multi-national treaties to their (or your) children.

  • 36.
  • At 06:18 PM on 18 Oct 2007,
  • Mirek Kondracki wrote:

From BBC News:

"A poll published on Thursday shows that a majority of people in the EU's five biggest countries, including Britain, would like to have a say, although they are unlikely to get it."

Is this what the leadership of the superstate means by 'democracy in action'?

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