Open Europe Blog

Given all the talk about an EU referendum, with many on both sides attempting to pre-judge the outcome, we thought this letter by Nigel Smith in today’s FT was worth flagging up. Mr. Smith is unusually well qualified to comment on this area given that he chaired the cross-party campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote on Scottish Devolution in 1997, advised the Northern Irish referendum in 1998 and chaired the UK Euro No campaign between 2002 and 2004.

Here is the letter in full:

Sir, Gideon Rachman’s view that a British referendum on Europe would “strongly resemble” the last one in 1975 and would be likely to produce the same result is flawed (“Don’t panic – Britain would vote to stay in the EU”, January 3). Does he really think that another token renegotiation will produce the same decisive Yes to Europe as it did in 1975 – a 67 per cent majority – a result that has carried a doubting nation through 40 years? 

Roy Jenkins, the senior cabinet member leading the Yes side, shuddered with embarrassment at the tokenism. But it worked as the hinge for a reversal in opinion partly because a sceptical public feared a No vote would trigger an economic crisis and partly because the blanket support of the media for staying in Europe made them unwilling to expose the charade. The idea that tokenism will again go unchallenged after 40 years’ experience of the EU is not tenable. 

Mr Rachman also sets great store by the three main party leaders being on the Yes side – despite Europe being littered with examples where voters have rejected their elites in referendums. Even in 1975, in a more deferential age, opinion moved in favour of his “fruitcakes” on the No side. Because Yes started in the lead, with 74 per cent supporting renegotiation, it could afford a little erosion in support. There is no prospect of the next referendum starting with the same level of support for tokenism.

Given these differences, token negotiations risk an indecisive Yes or even a weak No. The latter would have the negotiators scampering back to Brussels for the substantive negotiations they should have conducted in the first place and, of course, another referendum. There could hardly be a worse prospect, but the record shows it to be a typically EU approach to referendums.

If the EU and Britain decide on renegotiation then it must be substantive in nature and transparent in process. This approach will also prove educative for the public so that, even if negotiations deliver little change, the referendum that follows will be honest and informed, and the consequences of a No vote clear. 

Nigel Smith, Glasgow, UK

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