Sunday 10 May 2015

EU Referendum: The Wilson Fudge Part II

On May 27th, we fully expect proposals for an EU referendum to be included in the Queen's speech. There are of course some doubters who are convinced that Cameron will renege - an understandable sentiment after his "cast iron" betrayal - but political reality says this time he will have no choice but to follow through with his promise.

Cameron has reiterated his promise publicly and consistently since the election and also to various media outlets. Should he not deliver his credibility would be shot to pieces, he will lose all political authority and his backbenchers would get rid of him sharpish.

So whether we like it or not an EU referendum is what we now face. In ideal world we would like the referendum to be free and fair. The reality is that by their very nature referendums never are. They are crude, blunt instruments which are easily manipulated by governments. It is for very good and obvious reasons that they are banned in Germany under their constitution, Basic Law.

Inevitably, therefore the eurosceptic movement faces a difficult and unfair battle, but it's not unwinnable. In our view, looking back at the lessons of 1975 the greatest threat is actually a lack of coherence from our own side and that is something which can be under our own control.

Another cause for optimism is that the way of manipulating a referendum by framing the question in such a way as to encourage a certain result is far more difficult. Here we have a defence against such manipulation in the form of the Electoral Commission (EC). It advises Parliament on what will be the most neutral referendum question, which it has already done:
The Commission’s recommendations therefore highlight an important decision for Parliament: whether to retain or move away from the UK’s recent experience of  referendum questions using ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ responses.

If Parliament wants to retain the use of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ as response options to the referendum question, then the Commission has recommended that that the question should be amended to:

'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?'

If Parliament decides not to retain a ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ question, the Commission has recommended the following referendum question:

'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?'

The responses would be ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ / ‘Leave the European Union’.

Research participants found this the most neutral of all the versions tested. 
Interestingly when we look at its full report, the EC would have had concerns over the question (and possibly the preamble) used in 1975 (pictured above). Referring to the proposed question in the European Union (Referendum) Bill during the last Parliament which was:
“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”
The EC concluded on page 12, that "there were issues with the [phrase] ‘Do you think…?"
Use of ‘Do you think…?’
2.20 Views from participants on the opening phrase ‘Do you think…’ in the proposed question were split. Those who liked the wording thought it was neutral and personal, as if it was inviting someone’s considered opinion and encouraging them to think about the question. Younger people were slightly more likely than older participants to express a preference for this phrasing, because it made them feel that their vote was important.

2.21 Other participants, however, did not like the use of this opening phrase because they thought it was too informal, and likened it to a question that would be asked in an opinion poll survey. Some participants thought that the phrase ‘Do you think…’ implied that no action would be taken as a result of the referendum vote.

Use of ‘Should…’ instead of ‘Do you think…’
2.28 Four of the alternative questions included in the research (versions 2, 3, 4 and 6) included the use of the word ‘Should…’ in place of ‘Do you think…’. This alternative question introduction did not affect people’s ability to understand or answer the question according to their intentions, but some research participants preferred it because they felt it was asking them to state their choice or a decision about the issue, rather than their simply their opinion. These participants felt that the use of ‘Should…’ was more decisive and binding, and that the Government would take it more seriously, with action taken as a result.
While the EC settled on the word "remain", should the proposed question contain the word "stay", as it did in 1975 this would be subject to further assessment:
...the iterative nature of the research meant that it was not possible in the time available to fully explore and user test the impact of any variations to the wording (such as using alternative answer responses such ‘continue’ or ‘stay’ instead of ‘remain’, or using shorter versions of the response options).

If the Bill is amended to include this version of the referendum question, we would therefore undertake a further assessment of the intelligibility of this wording, including research, consultation and further testing in Welsh. We would also seek evidence from potential referendum campaigners about the impact of this approach.
Even the preamble on the ballot paper used in 1975 would cause problems. The phrase "the government have announced the results of renegotiation..." is likely to influence possible positive responses for staying in, as well as being too broad and vague. What results? What was renegotiated? As the EC states the preamble must be clear and neutral. Certainly if Cameron tried to add a preamble similar to the one used in 1975 onto the ballot paper we have the opportunity to challenge and seek clarification from the EC over its neutrality.

This time therefore we can have far more confidence in the neutrality of the question. However this won't prevent Cameron trying to repeat the Wilson renegotiation sham during the campaign.

This time we do have some advantages; experience informs us this will happen so we can be better prepared, we have two years to define Cameron's sham treaty before he can. In addition, while we accept that there will significant amount of "incoming" Cameron has helpfully informed us where the shells are going to land. With limited room for manoeuvre, he has already laid out his strategy of concentrating on 'small changes' under Article 48 regarding free movement of workers. Thus we are forewarned of the nature of the fudge to come. So by broadening out the eurosceptic case away from the very narrow focus on immigration reduces greatly the danger of us being outflanked.

Interestingly though there was a crucial impact the 1975 renegotiation, what Brussels dubbed "the so-called renegotiation", tactic had which no longer will have the same effect.

It wasn't so much the content (or lack of it) that mattered swaying opinion towards staying in but the delay that the protracted discussions caused. Negotiations took up a considerable amount of time...and time was on the side of continued membership.

The longer Britain remained a member, the more it reinforced the status quo effect. The delay from March 1974 when negotiations began through to the referendum in June 1975 virtually doubled the period over which Britain had actually been a member of the EEC. Over this period, Britain was progressively adopting EEC rules and adapting customs duties and other measures in accordance with the provisions for the transitional period. By the time the referendum came, Britain was getting used to being a Community member, thus swinging the status quo effect significantly in favour of remaining in.

The delay also had another benefit. In Spring 1974, the EEC was in disarray, notably over energy questions and Britain's rising prices were attributed to Community membership. If a referendum had taken place in March 1974, Britain would very likely have decided to leave. Wilson therefore needed time so that the decision could be made in more favourable circumstances.

After 40 years of membership, the status quo effect is fully established so this major impact of a Cameron fudge in this regard will be negligible. Even more so given that unlike 1975 we have an exit plan in the form of Flexcit.

So with one crucial advantage gone, being forewarned and with time to define Cameron's treaty early we can help nullify the damage that the so-called "reform" option presents us with.

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