Before the Liberal Democrat leadership is tempted to join in another coalition with the Conservatives, it should consider fully the risks attendant in agreeing to a referendum on EU membership in 2017.
Referendums are dangerous tools at the best of times, weakening the parliaments which have recourse to them and splitting political parties. When a referendum asks a stupid question on a complex subject, it richly deserves – and often gets – a stupid and simplistic answer. The proposition that the UK should leave the EU is a particularly stupid yet complicated question, deserving of patient parliamentary deliberation over time. The considered view of the new House of Commons will be to stay in and not to leave the EU regardless of any spurious “renegotiation” imagined by David Cameron. What on earth would happen in the Commons were the people to say no?
It is foolish to think such a referendum would settle the matter of Britain’s European policy. Which of us having lost the referendum would simply give up? Whatever the outcome, the battle will surely be very divisive in the country and may well propel Scotland out of the UK. The choice of 2017 for the referendum is Cameron at his most careless. The next general revision of EU treaties will not begin until after the French and German elections in 2017. The prime minister will not get a substantive renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership before 2017, so the referendum question will not be about his supposed diplomatic triumph but rather: “Do you want to stay in the present EU, with all its deficiencies and problems?”
The referendum will cause grave financial and economic instability and make the UK a laughing stock across the globe. It will obsess the British political class and reduce Britain’s already damaged reputation in the EU to zero. It will unsettle and weaken Europe. The Tory party commitment to this referendum is feckless and reckless. It is not worthy of a party of government. Mr Clegg says, quite rightly, that he deplores such a referendum. If we Liberal Democrats accept this referendum as part of a new coalition pact, we will bring ruination on ourselves.
Lib Dem MEP 1999-2014, Cambridge
• In common with millions of other citizens of the UK, I have a strong desire to vote on 7 May and a profound disinclination to do so. I would like to vote for a party that would concentrate on reducing the balance of payments deficit, rather than the budget deficit. This is not on offer with any party. I would vote for a manifesto which included the proper restructuring of public services in public hands. A little reshaping of the margins is the best we can hope for. I could warm to a party which had some genuinely redistributive policies, but equality is still a dirty word.
I have decided that the only solution to choosing how to vote is to narrow the whole field of issues down to one: a matter of immediate and lasting importance, one that gets plenty of media time, but is still not taken seriously enough by our elected representatives. That issue, of course, is Europe. There is plenty not to like about the EU, but it is the sum of its parts, and the UK is one of those parts. Europe matters to us, and we matter to Europe. Under a Conservative or Conservative-led government, Britain cannot participate fully and properly. The growth of nationalism in the UK is unwelcome and destructive; properly endorsing our membership of the EU would do much to stem the tide of disaffection. It would greatly increase business confidence in Britain and it would demonstrate that we do still stand for something outside of our own narrow lives. To achieve this it is necessary to vote against the possibility of a referendum, and to remove the spectre of leaving the EU from the political horizon. The only way to do this is to vote for the Labour party.
• Last year we recalled the carnage of the first world war. Many of today’s pensioners grew up with fathers damaged by the second world war. If membership of the EU has helped to keep peace in much of Europe, it is worth the price. David Cameron was only prevented by a failed vote in the Commons from taking us into the war in Syria in support of the US. We need a government willing to work closely with its partners in the EU on international affairs and with the UN, rather than going it alone.
• Miliband has taken his boldest gamble yet in calling on voters in Scotland to return to Labour (Ed Miliband: I won’t have Labour government if it means deals with SNP, 1 May). I hope progressives across the UK will do that with Ed at the helm. He should have added, for any voters distracted by the recent Lynton Crosby-led mind games, that a coalition of the Tories and UKIP – formal or not – will ignore Scotland, however strong the SNP, as it heads towards exit from the EU. If Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farage and a flip-flopping David Cameron succeed in that ambition, it will lead to the break-up of the UK with the remnants dependent on the US and our lives ruled by global corporations. It’s big choices that make high stakes gambles worthwhile.
• Yet again I see another set of election letters published in a newspaper, this time from 90 technology entrepreneurs (30 April). There are also recent letters from a group of small businesses and the 5,000 businesses earlier in the week – and they all seem to be party led. As a small business owner I am very concerned that the real issues are not being properly considered.
The prospect of an Europe in/out referendum is something that would be hugely damaging to business. We cannot afford two years of financial uncertainty in the run up to this, and cannot afford the consequences of a no. Other reactionary policies such as those against some parts of the renewable energy sector are not thought-out. This all contributes to the UK continuing to be a EU laughing stock, further undermining investor confidence.
The position of HSBC and previous statements by Nissan underline this. It is these real business issues that should be considered, not pre-organised party letters which serve only to drive a quick headline but don’t get to the heart of the real issues. These letters warn us of the consequences of a change of government, but whatever happens next week involves a change of government. To me, the only stable option is a complete change away from the current reactionary and short-sighted administration.
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
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