After saying that we do not need a referendum on the EU constitution just days ago, Ming Campbell has now suddenly announced that instead we should have a referendum on whether we should or should remain in the EU at all. I am not sure if it is a master stroke or utter folly.
For someone like me, who is Euro sceptical and has concerns about any attempts to extend qualified majority voting (QMV), I would seriously have to wonder whether voting to leave the EU would actually be the best way of opposing the Euro constitution, and therefore others who might conceivably have supported the EU might be forced to vote for withdrawal.
This could, were it not for the EU constitution debate, be seen as an absolute master stroke. It would woo, perhaps on temporarily, many UKIP and anti EU's in to the Lib Dem camp because it would mean that the more Lib Dems that are elected means the more likelihood of a debate and a vote on the whole future of the EU.
I have for some time argued that for pro EU people to win the argument, a national debate and a vote of some kind is required. The general feeling amongst the electorate is that we were tricked in to joining the EEC, we were tricked in the EEC referendum, and since then various government, but mainly the Tories, (specifically Margaret Thatcher when she signed the Single European Act) have given away powers to the EU without any reference to the British people's opinions on the subject. There is a general feeling of mistrust about the EU that goes far deeper than people's mistrust for our own parliament. Yes, this is stoked up and fueled by the British press, but it exists, and a referendum is going to be required at some point.
The question is though, for all the positives about this idea from Ming, what happens now ? If it is to mean anything then this policy must feature highly on ALL election material. We must sell it to everyone, both pro and anti EU. They need to know that only the Lib Dems will given them this unique opportunity. Indeed, this policy could be seen as one of the most important ways in which the Lib Dems can get at some groups of voters that we have never been able to target properly in the past.
There is, however, one fly in the ointment. It means in the short term that we as a party are going to blindly vote through the EU constitution, and no doubt any other piece of EU legislation because of the "catch all" referendum that we would promise at some distant point in the future if we ever had a Lib Dem government. That puts us in an awkward situation with the electorate and actually makes our MP's pretty powerless in parliament.
if we are saying we will only do things when we get in to power then we are saying that you can achieve nothing in opposition, which I don't think is true. Our MP's can be seen ion the intervening period as true campaigner for the people. Our cry should be "let the people decide on the EU Constitution". Instead, only the Tories will be able to say this.
I guess the jury is out on whether Ming's new referendum on the whole EU project is inspired or mad. If he had offered a referendum on that and the EU constitution, I have no doubt it would have been inspired. As it is, the message "We don't trust the people to have a referendum on the EU Constitution but we trust you to have one on EU membership" seems very muddled.