Analysis: Most politicians are wary of handing power to the people

Cameron is facing possible rebellion from within his own party
Cameron is facing possible rebellion from within his own party

David Cameron has been trying too hard to have it both ways on Europe.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

Generally our politicians are always quick to praise the judgement of the British people. Over the years they’ve made a variety of statements to this effect, arguing that the public overflow with wisdom and common sense. Of course these sorts of points are usually most often made when the electorate have just done something the politicians, like voting them back into office, or when they rejected the AV referendum earlier this year. 

However despite their protestations that the great British public can always be trusted to do the right thing, most governments and MPs are usually incredibly wary of putting theory into practise by using referendums on issues of national importance. David Cameron is facing this conundrum on two fronts this week. On the one hand there’s going to be the debate and vote on the vexed issue of British membership of the European Union, while north of the border the thorny subject of independence has raised its head once again.


In the short-term neither issue is particularly problematic but both could continue to fester, causing significant difficulties for Cameron in the years ahead. All of last week politicians have been appearing on debate and news shows to be questioned on which way they’ll vote on calling for a referendum on the EU. Even though Cameron has made it the vote a three-line whip, several have hinted that they might vote against the government. Whether they’re serious about this, or just want the media attention being a rebel confers, is open to question. No one doubts the fact that those calling for a referendum will lose. However a big enough rebellion could help undermine Cameron’s leadership. It will also strengthen the confidence of the eurosceptics who recently suffered a bit of a blow with the resignation of one of their chief supporters Liam Fox.

The Conservatives almost ripped themselves apart in the 1990s as the anti-European faction of the party did everything in their power to destabilise John Major’s leadership. Eventually he was forced into taking the radical step of calling a leadership contest to silence the dissenting voices. Cameron doesn’t want to go down this road again but is equally aware that his own backbenchers along with much of the public and the media are increasingly eurosceptic. Like most Conservative leaders he’s enjoyed the rhetoric of anti-Europeanism in speeches, and as a stick to beat the Labour party with, but when it comes to actions he’s always resisted calls for a new referendum on British membership.

Cameron has form on this issue; he outflanked Liam Fox to win the Tory leadership in 2005 by lurching to the right on Europe, only to return to the centre ground afterwards. If a referendum were to be called he’d be in the awkward position of having to campaign for it while trying to keep his eurosceptic credentials - an impossible task.

Now he has two additional problems. One is the coalition with the Liberal Democrats who are significantly more pro-European than his own party, and the other is the continuing euro-crisis. Even the most rabid eurosceptic MP must surely see that to attempt to call a referendum on getting Britain out of the EU at the moment would lead to further market insecurity and increase the chances of another collapse. However paradoxically the fact that they know they won’t win the vote will lead many to rebel, safe in the knowledge that it won’t lead to an actual referendum but they’ll able to tell their constituents that they voted for it.

The issue of Scottish independence is perhaps more tricky still. Alex Salmond has called again this week for a vote on Scottish independence to be held in the next few years with a safety net option of a secondary vote on full economic independence. Whether he’d win the former is impossible to say but I suspect he’d probably win the latter. The Conservative party want to resist this at all costs. Several options are available to them here. One is to ignore the results of any such vote as Westminster is still technically sovereign when it comes to these matters. However this would be politically difficult. Possibly a most astute solution would be to hold a vote themselves which has been suggested this week. This way the government could potentially get to control the wording of the question, the scope of the referendum and its timing. This way they could limit it to simply being about independence or not. If they did this then they’d stand a much better chance of winning, especially if they decided to make the referendum only legally binding if a significant proportion of the Scottish people participated.

Probably the biggest problem for Cameron in all of this is that without a referendum neither of these issues are likely to go away in the significant future.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a lecturer in politics at Nottingham Trent University

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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