The prospect of a referendum on British membership of the EU continues to hang over British politics. (Federal Union has warned of the reasons why such a referendum might not be as neat and democratic as it sounds here, but there remain plenty of people in British politics who do not listen to Federal Union as closely as they should.) During the political party conference season, a continual theme was when and how a referendum might be called and how each party might gain advantage by doing so.
It is in the Conservative party that demands for a referendum are strongest. That in itself is a clue that the referendum might be motivated not by pure and abstract thoughts about direct democracy but rather by a dislike of membership of the EU. However, the current official position of the leadership is that it prefers to be in the EU than to be out of it, and that while a referendum would be required to endorse any more European integration, it might not be needed to approve British withdrawal from aspects of the EU to which it is currently signed up.
There is the prospect though that this might change. The growth of support for UKIP, with its single and insistent demand for a referendum on leaving the EU, might tempt the Tory leadership to make a concession in that direction. (See here for an example of how UKIP votes might keep the Tories out of power.) It is also the case that the Conservatives object to the current level of British participation in the EU and want negotiations in order to reduce it. A likely proposal for the 2015 general manifesto will be a repeat of the renegotiation demand with the outcome to be put to a referendum. On the Yes side would be the Eurosceptic Tory government, plus whatever pro-Europeans remained in British politics; on the No side would be those for whom even partial membership was unacceptable. Imagine William Hague campaigning on a Yes for Europe platform: that is what the Tories are hoping for.
Labour in government pushed through the Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon treaties, and so is hardly able now to demand a reduction in British EU integration. It also faced down calls for a referendum on each of those treaties, while accepting the case for a referendum on the euro or on the European constitution. Its history therefore does not compel it to call for a referendum in the future, if it gets back into power after the next election, but equally it is not prevented from doing so.
Some Labour voices suggest that the debate about Europe might be settled by a referendum confirming British membership of the EU (although this contention is rather doubted here). Others think that any Tory offer of a referendum has to be matched by a Labour pledge simply to prevent a gap opening up on the issue turning it into a reason why the Conservatives might pick up floating voters. And a third argument runs that the Tories are divided on Europe – many of them want to leave, while others want to stay – and that a referendum on membership would tear that party apart. But calling an unnecessary referendum amounts to a huge risk – it might be won only narrowly or not won at all – so wiser heads might fear the apparent attractiveness of this proposal.
The Liberal Democrat policy is for a referendum on membership to be held when the next round of integration takes place. Clearly, that will not be for a while. But the Liberal Democrats will have at best a junior role in the next government, and it would be pretty hard for them to resist a referendum along the lines suggested for Labour above.
A Tory referendum would be another matter, however, given that it is intended to endorse a partial withdrawal from the EU as it is now. Such withdrawal is at odds with the usual Liberal Democrat view of Europe, but given how government office has changed their minds on other issues such as tuition fees, it would be wrong to rule out a future Conservative/Liberal Democrat government holding such a referendum altogether. This is one of those rare occasions when I hope I am proved wrong.