The UK Referendum on Europe: Prepare for the By No Means Inevitable

By Dr Dermot Hodson

So the Prime Minister has finally agreed to a public vote on EU membership, or has he? Media coverage of David Cameron’s longsuffering Europe speech, finally delivered at Bloomberg HQ on 23 January, has focused on the Conservative leader’s commitment to hold a referendum by 2017. As is so often the case with political pledges of this sort, however, the devil is in the detail. At the present moment, there are at least three reasons why this referendum might not go ahead as planned. This blog post sets out these reasons before arguing that the Prime Minister nonetheless needs to change his rhetoric on the EU if he holds out any hope of turning around public opinion in the UK.

The Conservatives might not win the next general election (and Labour and the Lib Dems might hold their nerve).

The coalition agreement signed in May 2010 between the Conservatives and Lib Dems made no mention of an in/out referendum on EU membership and the two parties have not reopened this issue thus far. For this reason, the Bloomberg speech can be seen as a trailer for a future Conservative government rather than a jump cut for the coalition, with Cameron announcing that his party would, if it wins the next election, seek a ‘new settlement’ with the EU before asking the people if they wish to remain members under these new terms. Although some commentators have downplayed the significance of this commitment it goes well beyond the current requirement to put certain categories of EU treaty change to a referendum before they can become law in the UK. This requirement, which is set out in the European Union Act (2011), refers only to a referendum on proposed treaty changes and not on the wider question of whether the UK should remain in the EU.

With the Conservatives trailing in the opinion polls (even after their post-Bloomberg bounce) the opportunity to deliver this manifesto pledge might not materialise. A key question, therefore, is whether the two other main political parties will be forced to match Cameron’s commitment to an in/out vote. Ed Miliband’s initial response to the Bloomberg speech was to reject calls for such a referendum for now, but the Labour leader is already under pressure from the ‘euro realist’ wing of his party to recant. Nick Clegg also came out fighting against the Bloomberg speech, although his criticisms of Cameron rested uneasily with the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledge in 2010 to hold an in/out referendum in the event of a ‘fundamental change’ in the UK’s relationship with the EU.

EU member states might not play ball

The Bloomberg speech is premised on the view that a new EU treaty is inevitable either to determine the fate of the euro or ensure a ‘diverse, competitive, democratically accountable Europe’. This is by no means a foregone conclusion. As regards the euro, the consensus last year may have been that further treaty change was inevitable to resolve the on-going sovereign debt crisis but the comparative calm on financial markets in recent months has given pause for thought. A new EU treaty on the political underpinnings of the European project seems less likely still. Here Cameron’s speech glossed over the fact that the UK and other EU member states spent much of the last decade bringing Europe ‘closer to the people’ though a new European Constitution only for the people of France and the Netherlands to reject this project. Although most elements of the European Constitution were later salvaged under the Lisbon Treaty, EU leaders remain rightly wary after this debacle about seeking legitimacy for European integration through poorly understood treaty reforms, especially when referenda are required for ratification.

Should other EU leaders not take forward plans for a new treaty then the fall back position, according to the Bloomberg speech, is that the UK would seek a unilateral change to its terms of membership. Quite how other EU member states would respond to such a request is unclear. Harold Wilson, it is true, secured a renegotiation of the UK’s terms of accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1975 but the cosmetic changes negotiated at this time stopped well short of the kind of new settlement that Cameron seems to have in mind. Also problematic are the potential knock-on effects from a UK renegotiation. In the mid-1970s the UK’s domestic difficulties with the European project could be treated by the EEC in isolation. These days there is more than one member state capable of unpicking key elements of the European legal order, with France and the Czech Republic among the potential members of this awkward squad.

That said, if the Conservative Party wins the next general election and makes good on its manifesto commitment, the expectation is that other EU member states would cut a deal with the UK to keep it in the European club. What is unclear at this stage is what such a deal would look like and whether it would carry any weight with UK voters. The wording used in such a referendum would obviously be key. Whereas Harold Wilson sensibly put the UK’s renegotiated accession treaty to one side in 1975 by asking voters ‘Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?’, Cameron is in danger of asking the more nebulous question of ‘Do you want the UK to remain a member of the European Union under the new terms of membership?’ Having committed to draw up legislation for this referendum within the current Parliament Cameron should take a leaf out of Wilson’s book by finding a formulation of words that focuses on the fundamental political issues at stake rather than the fine detail of future treaty negotiations.

The Conservative Party could yet implode

Why the Prime Minister picked this particular fight with the EU at this particular time is puzzling. It is certainly difficult to understand from an economic point of view; calling into question the country’s involvement in the EU single market was hardly the tonic that the UK economy needed in a week in which it emerged that GDP growth had turned negative for the third time since the global financial crisis. Nor does the Prime Minister’s move make sense from a geopolitical perspective. The unstable situation in North Africa at present makes it more important than ever that the EU speak with one voice on international issues, a fact that David Cameron has tacitly acknowledged by committing UK personnel to an EU training mission in Mali. There will be further tests of this sort ahead but such challenges will be unquestionably harder to meet if the UK leads other EU member states into another decade of institutional naval gazing.

Perhaps the most obvious explanation for the Bloomberg speech is a party political one in which David Cameron sought to silence Conservative eurosceptics by signing up to their longstanding demand for an in/out referendum. Some also see Cameron as attempting to contain the UK Independence Party (UKIP) by taking its leader, Nigel Farage, up on his offer not to challenge Conservative candidates in the next general election in exchange for an unequivocal commitment to hold an in/out referendum. The problem with this line of explanation is that the Prime Minister’s announcement on 23 January truly satisfied neither Tory hardliners nor UKIP.

Further backbench rebellions from Conservative Members of Parliament can be envisaged unless the Prime Minister commits to an in/out referendum sooner rather than later and agrees to hold a public vote even if no new settlement with the EU can be achieved. Boris Johnson, Cameron’s rival for the Conservative leadership, has already sown new seeds of discontent here by supporting calls for a referendum before 2015. Nigel Farage, meanwhile, has emerged stronger than ever from the Bloomberg speech by being able to claim credit for the Prime Minister’s referendum pledge while rescinding his offer of a pre-election pact with the Tories because of the contingent character of Cameron’s commitment.


A referendum on EU membership along the lines envisaged in the Bloomberg speech is by no means inevitable for the reasons discussed above. This does not mean, however, that David Cameron can delay political preparations for such a vote. If the Prime Minister is really serious about putting his ‘heart and soul’ into campaigning for staying in the EU under a new settlement then he has his work cut out. A Guardian/ICM poll published in the light of last week’s referendum pledge suggests that 49% would vote to leave the EU. Such views are not set in stone, however, with around 30% of likely ‘no’ voters describing their voting intentions as probable rather than definite. Changing these voters’ minds is critical for a possible future referendum and, even if this vote does not transpire, for winning back public support in the UK for the European project.

Some commentators have praised David Cameron’s efforts to set out a positive vision of UK membership in his Bloomberg speech. Self-evident though the Prime Minister’s remarks were on the EU’s contribution to peace in Europe they sounded less than convincing from a leader who couldn’t find the time to travel to Oslo in December to see the EU awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This argument will, in any case, carry limited weight with those voters for whom war in Europe is a distant memory. More promising in this regard was Cameron’s quiet questioning of calls to follow Norway and Switzerland into a free-trade agreement with the EU in place of membership, an argument that will receive a hearing if the Conservative leader turns up the volume about the loss of UK influence in Europe from such an arrangement.

In truth, however, the Bloomberg speech betrayed the shallow understanding of Europe that underpins contemporary Conservative thinking. Central to this (mis)understanding are two key beliefs: the first being that France, Germany and other EU partners are motivated by federalist fervour rather than, as is so plainly the case, national interest; and the second insisting that reforming Europe is a peculiarly British phenomenon when it so clearly is not. On the first of these points, Cameron wasted a glorious opportunity to slay the federalist dragon by making it clear that cooperation between EU member states occurs where national interests overlap and cannot persist for long when they don’t, preferring instead to portray the UK as an isolated pragmatist that ‘come[s] to the European Union with a frame of mind that is more practical than emotional’. On the second point, Cameron’s calls for a more competitive, flexible, accountable and fair Europe without weighing EU leaders’ efforts to achieve exactly that over the last twenty years was another serious misstep. At best, this insistence on re-drawing Europe on a blank page misses an opportunity to build alliances with other EU leaders over on-going reform efforts. At worst, it paints Europe in black and white rather than shades of grey, asking people to think of the EU as being entirely uncompetitive, inflexible, unaccountable and unfair only to wonder why they then won’t vote for continued membership.

Dermot Hodson is Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at Birkbeck. He is the co-author of ‘British Brinksmanship and Gaelic Games: EU Treaty Ratification in the UK and Ireland from a Two Level Game Perspective’ (with Imelda Maher, University College Dublin), which is forthcoming in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations. Thanks to Joni Lovenduski, Jason Edwards and Rosie Campbell for comments. The usual disclaimer applies.

Cameron’s EU Speech: What Would Machiavelli Say?

By Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

David Cameron made his long awaited speech about Europe this week, a speech that will decisively shape both his premiership and Britain’s relationship with the EU. It has been welcomed by parts of the press and Eurosceptic Tory MPs. It has been criticised by various other members of the EU.

The big question is what happens next-will the speech save or sink Cameron, Britain and the EU? In reaching for an assessment one way to go is backwards to 1513 to get the views of that most straight talking of theorists, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli, author of The Prince, spent time as ambassador to the court of Louis XII and travelled with Cesare Borgia so may know more than most about the twists and turns of foreign policy. He has already been used to dispense advice on the Brown vs. Blair feud and to proffer tips to Ed Miliband.

So what would Machiavelli say about Cameron’s speech and its consequences? He would welcome the clarity (though some feel the superficial clarity hides much fudging).  Machiavelli advised that a leader needs to come down on one side or the other of an argument. A leader must give ‘striking demonstrations’ and reveal himself in favour of ‘one side or another’ without an attempt to hedge or be neutral.  Cameron’s speech was striking and welcomed as defining. Machiavelli may have had some reservations about some of the ‘ifs’ contained in the speech-the clarity of the position could unravel under pressure and no amount of ‘sunny’ optimism could hide this.

Machiavelli warns, however, to ‘shun flatterers’. A leader must always ask and question but too much praise from flatterers will lead to ‘changes and indecision’. He should ‘make up his own mind by himself’. Cameron must beware potentially transient poll ratings or cheering headlines. ‘Prosperity’ in all senses, he warns, ‘is ephemeral’.

Another point Machiavelli may make, rather unexpectedly, would be to go with what the populace want. Machiavelli may or may not have been a democrat but he had a keen sense that any successful leader needed the ‘people’ with him.

In this case discovering precisely what the people want is difficult. It seems that, as of this weekend just over 50% of the public wish to leave the EU, there is support for renegotiation and most people asked would like a referendum (though apparently referendums on any subject are always popular). However, other polls indicate that the EU as a political issue remains a low priority for most voters.

Machiavelli’s final point is the most important. While supporting clarity, Machiavelli was also a supreme realist in terms of the need to adapt- Margaret Thatcher’s famous advice to ‘always leave yourself a way out’. Machiavelli believed most of the politicians he had known had displayed ‘a fatal inflexibility in the face of changing circumstances’.

So Cameron needs to be able to move with events. The difficulty is that, while the ‘ifs’ may bring wriggle room, the promise of a referendum does not. In the short to medium term the question is whether the speech and referendum promise strengthens his hand in Europe or hobbles his negotiating power. In the longer term Cameron has committed to a referendum in 2017 that may take place in be in a very different political landscape. Machiavelli may well point out that if Cameron wins the next election (on his own-another big if) and if his negotiations are successful the EU, the world economy and Britain may all be very different in five years. Could Cameron adapt his cast-iron pledge to this new world?

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.

Is politics doomed? Can and should it be defended?


Why are politicians so hated? What can be done about it? Is politics doomed? Can and should it be defended?

These were the questions that we put to politicians, political journalists and academics as we marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Bernard Crick’s ‘In Defence of Politics’ and the 40th Anniversary of the Department of Politics, Birkbeck. Crick’s book is, as its title suggests, an extended essay about the indispensibility of politics in democratic settings. Fifty years later the argument is as important as ever, perhaps more so as evidence mounts that the public are ever more indifferent or even hostile to politicians and political institutions are increasingly disengaged from political life.

Two panels addressed the questions and made the related cases for politics and politicians, followed by audience discussion and debate. Summarising brutally, the speakers argued that the essential ingredients of representative democracy are able and trustworthy politicians and citizens who are  informed and willing to trust and respect them. This central relationship has been under threat from some sections of the press, the political parties, current campaigning practices, focus group policy making, lack of public knowledge about  what politicians actually do and can do and, finally, the more general absence of informed discussion of public issues in which politicians and public take part. 

Trust in politicians might improve if politicians were honest about their beliefs and presented realistic policy options. Yet while recognising the many problems with our politics in the present, the speakers were at one in defending the importance of politics. Moreover, that fact that more people today express a greater interest in politics than at any other time gives grounds for hoping for a positive reconstruction of the relationship between citizens and politicians

PANEL 1 – Is Politics doomed?

Chair: Professor Deborah Mabbett (Birkbeck)

Panel: Dr Jason Edwards (Birkbeck) 

Professor Tony Wright (Birkbeck and UCL) 

Professor Gerry Stoker (University of Southampton) 

Professor Michael Kenny (Queen Mary, University of London)

PANEL 2 – Why are politicians so hated and what can be done about it?

Chair: Professor Tony Wright (Birkbeck and UCL)

Panel: Frank Dobson MP (Member of Parliament for Holborn and St. Pancras)

Helen Goodman MP (Member of Parliament for Bishop Auckland and Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport)

Tulip Siddiq (Councillor, Camden Council)

Ben Wright (BBC).

The event was jointly organised and sponsored by Political Quarterly, The Department of Politics at Birkbeck and the Birkbeck Centre for the Study of Politics and Public Life.

Taking up the gauntlet in the UK: the only real Big Society is the associative society

By Dr Jason Edwards

The uncritical understanding of what constitutes a ‘community’ and the failure to grasp what forms of citizen self-government are possible in current conditions is what betrays the intellectual laziness of the Big Society’s key thinkers.

As a political project espoused by Britain’s coalition government, the ‘Big Society’ looks moribund. Yet those on the left would do well not to dismiss without reservation the thinking that has lain behind its construction. Big Society thinkers such as Jesse Norman and Phillip Blond offer some accurate diagnoses of the social and economic problems of contemporary Britain, and are right to put forward far-reaching alternatives for socio-economic governance that are informed by ideas of localism, voluntarism, and mutualism.

Continue reading on openDemocracy.

The ‘Big Society’: criticism and contradiction.

By Professor Rodney Barker

Is Big Society rhetoric just that, a froth concealing the reality beneath. There are clear contradictions between what the Cameron government says it wants, and what it does. Voluntary action is valued in the rhetoric, and deprived of funding in practice. Choice is applauded in education whilst the ability of 16 year olds to exercise that choice is undermined by the abolition of Educational Maintenance Grants. But even if the rhetoric were dismissed as mere deception, deception is always easier if the deceiver believes it themselves.

Fitting the evidence round the policy is not the monopoly of Blairism, and Nelson is not the only person to put a telescope to a blind eye and declare ‘evidence, I see no evidence’. What the actions of the present British government reveal is not a deceptive function of rhetoric, but the overwhelming power of ideology to digest evidence. Economic policy illustrates this most clearly with a Chancellor who insists he is not drowning but waving. There is no mileage in the distinction that conservatives have used so often in the past between ideology and common sense, or between rationalism and cautious empiricism. Unless you are the most rigid of representative positivists, you are a rationalist in that evidence is sifted and shaped according to ideology as much as if not more than vice versa. Conservatives are, and always have been, as ideological as anyone else. The question to ask of political rhetoric is not what arguments people use or what principles they invoke, but where do they want those arguments and principles to take them. What kind of world do conservatives who speak of a Big Society, hope to live in?

The crucial word is ‘big’. The big society is comprehensive and uniform in one crucial respect; it depends on individual choices made on the basis of individuals’ command of material resources; that is the function of money, in reducing all choices to a common coin. A big society may not be uniform in its outcomes, but it is uniform in its principles and powers of choice. And those who invoke Burke and the little platoon should remember that a platoon is not a feature of an anarchist commune, but of a uniform military hierarchy. That is where the contradictions swiftly emerge: markets are a way of reducing everything to common and individualised, socially fragmented coin, and create their own uniformity of criteria, subverting a variety of principles of choice.

The simple juxtaposition of either unrestrained markets or regulation and planning has been challenged by the activities since 2011 of Occupy, and by the slow realisation of the ecclesiastical hierarchy that whatever is rendered unto Caesar, some things still need to be left to God, so that even if we don’t return to the medieval church’s condemnation of usury, everything has its proper place, and there is no one currency for deciding everything and allocating everything. The values and principles for providing cars and computers are not the same as those for providing health care. The Good Samaritan did not ask to see the victim’s credit card before deciding to give first aid.

The opposition of society to state is a befuddling diversion. In each case, as a good socialist pluralist such as Tawney recognised, the question is what is the appropriate function, who should perform it, under what conditions and with what criteria. However big a society is by virtue of its uniformities, to be healthy it must also be a rainbow society. For social life to exist, there have to be common elements, and dimensions of life where people are equal, and where therefore the patterns of provision reflect the need and the provision in question, not criteria from other dimensions such as wealth or social position. Three dimensions are of primary importance for equal treatment:

1.       Before the law: no tax privileges.

2.       In sickness and in health: universal provision funded by universal contributions.

3.       Education, realistically available to all.

Within that framework there can then be diversity, a big society as the framework for a multitude of little ones. Such an agenda is distinct from multiculturalism: people occupy different roles for different aspects of their lives, and do not inhabit any one collective culture or way of life. As members of a public national health service they are all fellow citizens, as members of faith groups or of none, they are part of particular, non-universal associations. There is no one in society who can represent them in their entirety but themselves.

Whilst Cameron’s conservatism goes for the universality of the market in which, following the linguistic coup of the Thatcher years, we are all reduced to being nothing but customers, it undermines or fails to cultivate the three equalities of law (tax); physical care (health); and flourishing (education). The objection to the modern state from the right, and from liberals or at least from economic liberals, is that it is too big, it regulates and controls and co-ordinates too much. The belief is that the more comprehensive and universal a set of arrangements, the less detailed as to substance they should be and the more a matter of procedures, of facilitating rather than prescribing. But that is an objection which rests on an aversion to bigness and prescription in all their forms, and not just to states. If it is maintained consistently, it must apply just as much to society. That then provides an argument against a simple belief in the universal superiority of markets and profit seeking. That may be the best way of producing a telephone service, but not the best way of providing health care. A big society in that case is desirable only if it is an enabling context for lots of small societies, and small societies moreover, which operate on a great variety of principles, some commercial, some hedonistic, some religious.

For society to be ‘big’ it must have universal dimensions which sustain and cultivate solidarity and equality. For it to be free it must have many small and diverse components performing other functions. The way to achieve that is not to see government and society as antagonistic alternatives, but to recognise the necessary symbiosis between the two, and to discover, and continually be alert for, the ways in which diversity in one dimension or function can only flourish if there is universality in others, and to recognise the role of citizenship and the state in achieving such a way of living, a pluralism of both ends and means which is both flexible and attuned to cultural variety, and committed to realistically sustained equalities.

These ideas are further expanded in the Political Quarterly special issue, Retrieving The Big Society.

This article originally appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog.

The Emerging Neocommunitarianism

By Will Davies

When the magnitude of the current economic crisis became apparent in September 2008, many observers believed that they were witnessing an entire governing economic paradigm collapse in a matter of days. The BBC’s business editor, Robert Peston, has said that, at the time, he assumed that 2008 would come to symbolise for Western capitalism what 1989 symbolised for state socialism. The question of what would come after capitalism, or at least after neoliberalism, provoked excited debate. 

Four years later, the resilience of the ‘neoliberal’ model of policy-making provokes a certain confusion and some dismay amongst many people. Surely some sort of ‘paradigm shift’ ought to have occurred by now? The template of economic policy-making appears largely unchanged. 

Or maybe we’re just approaching this problem in the wrong way. If we understand neoliberalism a little more precisely and philosophically, we might also begin to identify ways in which it is being usurped by a new logic of government, which promises to alleviate many of the symptoms and crises of our age. In an article published in the new edition of Political Quarterly, I refer to this logic as ‘neocommunitarianism’.

One of the startling things about so many contemporary upheavals, from the banking crisis to the riots of 2011 to the apparent obesity epidemic, is how much they are interpreted as psychological in character. Individuals are assumed to be incapable of acting quite as rationally or as self-interestedly as policy-makers might once have hoped. This emphasis on psychology is both a legacy of neoliberalism, but also the path to a subtly different paradigm.

It is a legacy, inasmuch as neoliberalism is fundamentally about elevating the choosing, desiring mind to the status of society’s ultimate barometer of value. Neoliberalism, not entirely unlike classical liberalism, was initially a project of enshrining a form of value relativism. For thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, the chief virtue of markets was that they provide a peaceful means of coordinating the choices of millions of individuals, without any over-arching view of what a ‘good’ or ‘correct’ choice consists of.

Policy makers today show a growing interest in economic psychology, as advanced by behavioural and happiness economics. This is in keeping with the neoliberal obsession with choice. But in its empirical dimensions, it disrupts the fundamental value relativism that was so important to Hayek and his followers. Increasingly, governments do have a view on what a good choice consists of, and point to wellbeing surveys and experimental evidence in confirming it.

Where our health, mental health, environment and personal finances are concerned, evidence is gathered on which choices produce greater wellbeing or long-term cost efficiency. Bad choices need identifying, and the conditions (or ‘choice architectures’, as Nudge refers to them as) and influences behind them need addressing. A new vision of the individual is emerging, as governed as much by social norms as by incentives. New techniques, tests and data-gathering methods are emerging, through which policy-makers can trace behavior and wellbeing.

In what sense is this ‘neocommunitarian’? Certainly not in the ethical sense of communitarianism propagated by ‘Red Tories’ or ‘Blue Labour’. But just as neoliberalism took a philosophical argument about justice and rights, and converted it into a technocratic policy toolkit, neocommunitarianism is effectively doing the same with respect to a philosophical argument about social relations and traditions. The pursuit of bodily, mental and collective ‘wellbeing’ takes the Aristotelian ethos of communitarianism, and rationalizes it to make it testable. Helping people pursue a healthy, financially stable life is now a job for public policy, in a way that the neoliberals never could have countenanced.

This is not how we imagine a paradigm shift. It is even less of an ideological shift. It is more diffuse and technical than that. But by paying attention to techniques of valuation and how the policy failures of neoliberalism are being interpreted, we get a glimpse of how contemporary crises becomes managed, if not quite resolved.

William Davies is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick. His article, The Emerging Neocommunitarianism appears in the new edition of Political Quarterly.

Lessons from the Big Society

Dr Jason Edwards

The idea of the Big Society was conceived prior to the present crisis, yet it was informed by anxieties regarding neo-liberal government that had amounted over decades 

The Big Society has been seen by many on the left as no more than rhetorical bombast or an ideological justification for the coalition’s deficit reduction programme. But as much as critics are right to point out how Big Society policies pursued by the coalition to date resemble established neoliberal exercises in state shrinking and marketisation, those on the progressive left would do well to take seriously the ideas that lie behind Big Society thinking.

Read the rest of the piece on the Policy Network website, here.