This is Colm McCarthy’s latest column for the Farmer’s Journal. They’ve very kindly let us repost it here:
The decision last Thursday to detach the United Kingdom from the European Union was taken by referendum, a procedure familiar in this country but a constitutional novelty in the UK. Ireland has a written constitution and one of its provisions is that it can be modified only by popular vote. If the Irish government wished to scrap EU membership it would have to seek deletion, by referendum, of the article inserted on entry in 1972. There are other countries with written constitutions which can be modified without a popular vote, usually by some kind of parliamentary supermajority.
Britain is completely different. There is no written constitution at all and parliament is completely sovereign. The UK joined the European Economic Community without a popular vote, could leave without a popular vote, could abolish the monarchy, invade France, expel Scotland or opt for a decimal calendar. Constitutionally a referendum in the UK is always a war of choice, never a war of necessity. The referendum last week was only the third such national poll in British history and the first to go against the incumbent prime minister.
Britain’s first-ever national plebiscite was called by Harold Wilson, the Labour premier, in 1975, not to approve British entry to the EEC but to confirm the entry decision already taken and implemented by simple majority of the sovereign parliament. Wilson called a referendum to heal a rift on Europe in his party, as did David Cameron this time round. Wilson won a comfortable 2 to 1 majority with all main political leaders, including Margaret Thatcher, campaigning in favour. He was widely criticised for this unprecedented constitutional adventure but it was low-risk – there was little likelihood that the electorate would vote for exit. The cost of the ‘wrong’ result was also low – Britain had been in the EEC only a few years, it was a much more limited organisation than the EU has since become and exit would have been a major nuisance rather than a major crisis.
The second also produced a vote against change. When the Conservatives formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010 they promised their partners a referendum on the voting system. It was opposed by both Conservatives and Labour and duly defeated 2 to 1. The ‘wrong’ result would again have been no big deal, a limited move towards proportional representation. Britain’s first two national referenda thus shared some key features. The Prime Minister who initiated each had good reasons to expect a win, and the stakes were not too high. Defeat would hardly have ended their political careers.
The third referendum shared none of these features. David Cameron’s decision was announced in January 2013 at a time when his party trailed Labour in the polls and faced vote leakage to the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage. Both his Liberal Democrat partners and the Labour party favoured continuing in the EU and opposed the holding of a referendum. At the time a YouGov opinion poll showed that 40% would vote to stay in the EU with 34% voting to quit and 26% undecided. Cameron promised to hold the referendum should he win a Conservative majority at the election in 2015 which he duly did. It was never likely to be anything but close.
Moreover the European Union had become far more than a free trade zone, with extensive and detailed common policies covering energy, transport, environment, worker protection and a single market in financial services. The international economy had not recovered from the worst downturn since the Second World War. The consequences of withdrawal from the EU by a key member were unlikely to be minor, never mind predictable or easily managed. Cameron’s decision in January 2013 has been described, accurately, as a roll-of-the-dice, a high-stakes gamble driven by concerns about internal party management. His decision to resign was the correct one: he has landed Britain, Europe and indeed the world economy in an unholy mess at the worst possible time.
He is not the first of Europe’s leaders to place domestic political concerns ahead of economic prudence. The faulty design and subsequent mismanagement of the Eurozone owes much to short-sightedness in Germany. The next domino to drop could be in Italy, for long the least successful of the major Eurozone economies. The government plans a referendum in October on constitutional reforms supported by mainstream opinion. But it may be lost. It provides an opportunity to disgruntled voters to give the establishment another kicking in an over-indebted country with a dodgy banking system and could end the political career of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. More importantly for Ireland, it could spark a terminal crisis for the common currency. The anger of European leaders with the United Kingdom’s referendum gamble is entirely understandable.