Why was there a referendum?

indexIn the post-war era, the issue of European integration has been a fault line of British politics.  Both main parties have been divided internally  and both have changed their stance on the issue.  However, there has been no formal requirement for a referendum on the issue.  Harold Wilson used a nation-wide referendum, a constitutional innovation, in 1975 in order to resolve conflict within the Labour Party.  David Cameron moved to initiate one in response to conflict within Conservative ranks.  The roots are to be found in the last Parliament.  Details can be found in the chapters by Phil Cowley and me in Seldon and Finn’s The Coalition Effect.

There was no commitment in the Conservative 2010 manifesto to a referendum on continued membership of the EU.  The crucial development was the decision of the newly-formed Backbench Business Committee to schedule a debate, initiated by Conservative MP David Nuttall, in October 2011, calling for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.  Had the Committee not come into existence the previous year, with responsibility for scheduling debates (which it did on the basis of proposals from private Members), there would almost certainly not have been a debate – the Government would not have found time for it.   Despite a heavy whipping operation against the motion, 81 Conservatives voted for it.

The size of the rebellion clearly alarmed No.10.  Having worked to keep his Liberal Democrat allies on side, David Cameron now moved to keep his own backbenchers on side.  He made the case for negotiating reform within the EU and putting the terms to the people in a referendum.  However, committed Eurosceptic backbenchers wanted legislation to provide for a referendum in the next Parliament.  They took the remarkable step of moving an amendment to the Queen’s Speech in 2013 regretting the absence of any mention of a referendum Bill.   To assuage the rebels, the leadership changed tack and offered support for a Private Member’s Bill on the subject.  Despite this, the rebels divided the House on the amendment.  Although defeated by  277 votes to 130, a total of 114 Conservatives voted for it.  This spurred No. 10 to further action, producing a draft Bill, which backbencher James Wharton, successful in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills, introduced.  A Conservative, but not a Government, three-line whip was issued in support of the measure.  (Contrast this with a three-line whip against Nuttall’s motion.) The PM held a barbecue for Tory MPs and peers and tried to do what he could to facilitate the Bill’s passage.  He was, in effect, committed.  There was little likelihood of the Bill getting through – a combination of Labour and Liberal Democrat peers saw to that – but the PM had little option but to pursue the issue.  It became a commitment in the party’s 2015 manifesto (an in-out referendum by 2017), the party won the general election and the rest is now, well, history.

We may have ended up sooner or later with a referendum, but had the Backbench Business Committee not selected David Nuttall’s motion for debate when it did, then the course of history may have been different.  And don’t say what happens in the House of Commons doesn’t matter.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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10 Responses to Why was there a referendum?

  1. maude elwes says:

    I believe we ended up with a Referendum because the public repeatedly pressed for it. So many people, other than the indoctrinated young who had been fed the EU group mantra in school and EU books, supplied from same EU virtually from birth.They were never educated on the reality of the undemocratic takeover of their lives and their country by this giant organisation.

    Cameron and the back room boys went along with the idea as it was felt it would increase his popularity and never end in a Leave vote to boot. As he too was caught up in his ingrown obsession. One of the reason for this is, he had led a sheltered life. Bullingdon and Oxford are not places where you end up with an understanding of the on the ground electorate as a whole. Unless you mix intensely with your Scout and his family.

    Any and all the machinations of how it came about does not change that fundamental fact. A lack of connection to the majority in our society.

  2. Croft says:

    I’m sure DC gave the commitment because he felt he had to for internal party reasons and indeed he thought he could have won it. Perhaps hubris after the AV vote?

  3. Jonathan says:

    It seems Cameron – surely a candidate for the title of worst prime minister in history – has now sent our country on a course of decline and probable break up, for what are certainly internal party reasons. I’m sure we all remember what John Major called those in his cabinet who were Eurosceptic. There are still plenty of them in the parliamentary Conservative party.

    • Croft says:

      Really Jonathan I thought you more measured. The ‘its all doom’ is a bit ott. DC made a bad call but i’m not sure that makes him the ‘worst’ PM albeit the press hyperbole seems to run straight for that. Indeed it seems a very odd attitude to democracy that the commentariat seem almost universally to ascribe the public having a vote terrible if they might actually vote the way that is ‘wrong’

      LN: What chance of the FIxed term parliament act being revisited now. We have the fairly bonkers position of a parliament made up of remainers being changed with passing legislation to quit, a PM with a mandate gone and a new PM who ‘can’t’ seek a personal mandate. Its not exactly idea!

      • Jonathan says:

        Croft, Lord Norton is the best qualified to comment on the pitfalls of referendums. See for example:
        https://nortonview.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/the-case-against-referendums/

        Cameron held the referendum for internal party political reasons, not because it was best for the country. It allowed nasty, dangerous people to employ the tactics used by Hitler (who was also elected, remember) and blame a particular group or groups for their problems.

        As a result, we have an increase in racist incidents, from people who think they have voted to reduce immigration (I didn’t see that on the ballot paper). If people are so clueless about what they were voting for, why are they allowed to vote? The economy is on the road to ruin, the country is likely to break up, just after we had managed to save it in 2014, and we are now seen as the most isolationist and pathetic nation on the planet. I see no reason to be optimistic.

      • Croft says:

        ” It allowed nasty, dangerous people to employ the tactics used by Hitler ”

        Godwin’s Law so quickly – give me strength!

      • Jonathan says:

        I’m not suggesting for one minute that the Leave campaigners are as bad as Hitler, just that the tactics they used during the campaign is similar to those the Nazis used: blaming the problems some sections of society have on particular ethnic groups or nationalities. Speakers in the European Parliament have said exactly the same thing this morning.

  4. Pingback: How it all began. | David Nuttall MP – Bury North

  5. maude elwes says:

    @ LN:

    I think ‘Lords of the Blog’ has gone to sleep. Here we have one of the most remarkable political events of our time and they have not a word to write on this strange call by the Commons to remove democracy from our fingers. And it is being done by a bunch of Blairite self interested goons who continue to back a cadaver and his weird chums.

    I can only assume they are afraid of the scream they may encounter.

    None of Parliament, high or low, is willing to tell it as it really is. The Globalist are in a rage, the whip hand is being taken from them by the voice of the people. And the leaches who are clinging to them for their largesse feel they must squeal as loud as they can against the voice of the electorate, or find themselves, rightfully, on the end of a zero hour contract line. Do any of these, frankly unfit for purpose runts, squirm when they have a five person majority in their elections? No…. Never. They certainly have learned a great deal from the unelected EU haven’t they? And they have the nerve to scorn Germany of the 1930’s.

    This man, who is a gift to the American people, is telling it like it is in this link. But the deaf ears of those who should be flung out of their seats by calling by-elections to replace every one of them, are choosing not to listen. Well they would wouldn’t they?

  6. Pingback: BRexit from the Bayou | Franksummers3ba's Blog

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