Exactly what it says on the tin

Iain Duncan Smith (picture Steve Punter / Flickr)

I know it doesn’t help much to rake over Wednesday’s debate in the House of Commons on whether to have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, but I can’t resist it anyway. In particular, I want to quote from the speech by former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith. It sums up everything that was wrong about the whole approach taken on all sides.

Mr. Duncan Smith: “In the referendum that my hon. Friend mentions, I voted to go into the EEC. I do not resile from that; I was right to vote for what I did. I voted to go into a marketplace, and to share certain functions to create that marketplace, but we have gone a lot further than that. The problem is that there is dishonesty in saying, “You all knew about this when you first joined. You all knew, for example, about the supremacy of European law.” That is nonsense. People who say that know very well that they did not think about that issue when they voted on whether to join. That is the real reason why it is time to have a referendum on the treaty: it will allow us to tease out the fact that if we keep going down the road that we are taking, without making any change, things will go wrong.”

If ever proof was needed that a referendum is not a miracle cure that some MPs were suggesting, here it is. First, Iain Duncan Smith didn’t know what he was voting for in 1975. He was broadly speaking against the supremacy of European law, but voted for it nevertheless, not understanding what was at stake. (His refusal to regret the way he voted is a peculiar mixture of honour and stubbornness.) If Iain Duncan Smith, a future leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, can be uninformed about this, who else might have been? I refer you to what Edward Heath said at the time, to demonstrate that it was possible to have been properly informed. Lord Denning, in his famous comments comparing European law with the incoming tide, certainly understood what was up. So, a referendum throws the decision into the hands of people who may not understand fully what is at stake. (This is not to criticise anybody, or even to argue against referendums, merely to note the difficulty of holding referendums.) Secondly, note the fact that IDS wanted a referendum now on the supremacy of European law, despite the fact that this principle is left unchanged by the Lisbon treaty. To hold a referendum on this principle means to have a referendum on EU membership as a whole, not on the latest reform package. Again, that is a perfectly reasonable proposal to make, but what’s at stake in the vote ought to be set out clearly on the ballot paper. We have all heard of the wood stain that does exactly what it says on the tin. The only acceptable referendum would be one that that says on the tin what it does. That wasn’t what was on offer on Wednesday night.

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You can read the whole transcript of the debate in the House of Commons here. You might also like to read a report on a parallel debate held by Intelligence Squared that evening on the same subject – the result might surprise you.

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