Belfast Telegraph

Weak-willed Cameron's Euro gamble could rip UK asunder

Risky business: David Cameron
Risky business: David Cameron

By Dennis Kennedy

Having already weakened one pillar of the British constitution - the sovereignty of Parliament - by resorting to referendum, David Cameron has now chopped away at another.

Mr Cameron has told us that the decision on the UK's membership of the EU is the most important to face this country for a generation.

But now he tells us that his Government is so divided on it that, whatever deal is done, Cabinet ministers will be free not just to vote against it in the referendum, but to campaign against the policy of the Government of which they are still members. This makes a nonsense of collective responsibility.

Mr Cameron could have waited until his deal with the EU was completed and then, if he wished, put it to Cabinet for approval. At that point any dissenting ministers would have had the options of resignation or being sacked.

What conviction will Mr Cameron, his Government or the Conservative Party bring to the campaign if sections of his forces are in the enemy trenches?

Resort to referendum is an indication of weakness of leadership in a parliamentary democracy. It has, until recently, had no place in the governance of the UK. The only real precedent is the 1975 referendum called by another weak Prime Minister faced with a eurosceptic revolt in his Cabinet.

Harold Wilson, like Mr Cameron, was happy to diminish the role of parliament by passing the question to "the people".

Wilson, like Cameron, described the referendum as giving the people the right, hitherto denied to them, of deciding for or against the European Union. Cameron cannot, if he is honest, make the claim that "the people" have been denied their say.

The EU of today is essentially - apart from size - what the EEC was in 1975. It was pledged to "an ever-closer union", it was expressly committed to full economic and monetary union, a single European currency was openly discussed, political co-operation was institutionalised. And "the people" said yes to the EU.

Ireland shows the folly and fraudulence of referendums in a parliamentary democracy. In the seven EU-related referendums held since 1973 the highest total turnout has been 58%. None has been approved or rejected by a majority of "the people" - the electorate.

When the Treaties of Nice and Lisbon were each first rejected it was by the votes of 20% and 25% of the electorate. In second referendums, the winning percentages represented, for Nice, about 30% of the electorate, and, for Lisbon, 40%.

In none of these cases could it be claimed that "the people" had spoken. A majority in each case had said nothing by staying at home.

If the votes in the Dail had gone against the Republic's Government first time round on Nice or Lisbon it would surely have had to resign, having lost the confidence of the house on a vital policy. But it did not; partly because the Dail had already, with the backing of the opposition, endorsed the two treaties and a resulting general election would inevitably have returned a government still in favour of them.

Mr Cameron's upcoming referendum may be harder to ignore. If the European deal he presents to the electorate is rejected it will be the end of his career, possibly the implosion of the Tory party and probably the dismemberment of the United Kingdom.

The only way out of this mess is for the citizens of the UK to use the referendum to ensure that we stay in the EU.

Dennis Kennedy is a former deputy editor of the Irish Times and served for a term as European Commission representative in Northern Ireland

Belfast Telegraph

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