The two faces of William Hague

William Hague

William Hague

The traditional definition of chutzpah is the man who, on convicted of the murder of his parents, asks the court for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan.  After William Hague’s speech in the House of Commons in the referendum debate on 5 July, we can revise it.

The debate was occasioned by a private member’s bill to give effect to the prime minister’s plan for a referendum on EU membership in 2017, the one that he described in his long-awaited speech in January.  (Read about that speech here.)  The bill had to come from a backbencher because the Liberal Democrats do not support it and so would not allow it to have government time.  Legal experts tells us that, even if it comes into law, it cannot actually take automatic effect: 2017 is after the next general election and the next government would be required to take action to put it into effect, an obligation that could readily and simply be ignored.  The effect of this bill is therefore less legislative and more political.

William Hague, although foreign secretary, spoke for his party and not for the government in the debate.  Of course, he supported the bill, but one of his reasons was thoroughly cheeky.

When Ministers from other countries ask me why public opinion here is disillusioned with the European Union, I point out that there have been referendums on the EU in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Luxembourg, Sweden and Ireland—often twice, of course, in Ireland—yet there has been no referendum for more than a generation in the United Kingdom.

And what were those referendums on?  They have been on treaties – Amsterdam, Nice, constitutional and Lisbon – that William Hague opposed or on joining the euro, which he also opposed.  Had William Hague been in government at the time, those treaties would not have happened (they required unanimity among the member states) and so France, the Netherlands, Spain, Luxembourg, and Ireland would have had no referendums.

On the euro, it would not have been in his gift as to whether Denmark and Sweden held referendums in order to join, but he cannot lament the absence of such a referendum in Britain.  His whole campaign in the 2001 general election was devoted to resisting such a referendum – save the pound, he declared, let’s not try and join the euro.

It is terrible that there has been no referendum on Europe, says a man whose policy was that referendums on Europe should not be called.

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