Having already weakened one pillar of the British constitution – the sovereignty of Parliament – by resorting to referendum, Mr Cameron has now chopped away at another. Cabinet government is central to parliamentary democracy as developed here;. when parliament elects a prime minister it recommends his or her name to the monarch, who then asks the nominee to form a government, the core of which is the Cabinet.
Fundamental to the Cabinet’s work is collective responsibility. Ministers may differ during the formulation of policy within Cabinet, but once it is agreed it is government policy, and all cabinet members are bound by it. Anyone unable to accept the agreed line can resign or be dismissed by the PM.
Mr Cameron has told us that the decision on the UK’s membership of the EU is the most important to face this country for a generation. But now he tells us that his government is so divided on this that whatever deal is done, Cabinet Ministers will be free not just to vote against it in the referendum, but to campaign against the policy of the Government of which they are still members. This makes a nonsense of collective responsibility.
Mr Cameron could have waited until his deal with the EU was completed, and then, if he so wished, put it to Cabinet for approval. At that point any dissenting ministers would have had the options of resignation or being sacked. What conviction will Mr Cameron, his government, or the Conservative Party bring to the referendum campaign if sections of his forces are in the enemy trenches?
The only fig leaf Mr Cameron can cling to just now to cover his lack of credibility is the disarray of Labour under Mr Corbyn. Resort to referendum is an indication of weakness of leadership in a parliamentary democracy. It has, until recently, had no place in the governance of the UK. The only real precedent is the 1975 referendum called by another weak Prime Minister faced with a euro-sceptic revolt in his cabinet. Harold Wilson, like Mr Cameron, was happy to diminish the role of parliament by passing the question to ‘the people’.
Wilson, like Cameron, described the referendum as giving the people the right, hitherto denied to them, of deciding for or against the European Union. Cameron cannot, if he is honest, make the claim that the ‘people’ have been denied their say. The EU of today is essentially – apart from size - what the EEC was in 1975. It was pledged to ‘an ever closer union’, it was expressly committed to full economic and monetary union, a single European currency was openly discussed, political cooperation was institutionalised. And the ’people’ said yes to the EU.
Ireland shows the folly and fraudulence of referendums in a parliamentary democracy. In the seven EU related referendums held since 1973, the highest total turnout has been 58%. None has been approved, or rejected, by a majority of the ‘people’ – the electorate. When the Treaties of Nice and Lisbon were each first rejected it was by the votes of 20% and 25% of the electorate. In second referendums the winning percentages represented, for Nice, about 30% of the electorate, and for Lisbon,40%. In none of these cases could it be claimed that the ‘people’ had spoken. A majority in each case had said nothing, by staying at home.
If the votes in the Dail had gone against the Government first time round on Nice or Lisbon, it would surely have had to resign, having lost the confidence of the house on a vital policy. The two referendum losses could similarly be seen as a vote of no confidence, by the people of Ireland, in the Government, and therefore logically leading to the resignation of the Government.
But it did not resign; partly because the Dail had already, with the backing of the Opposition, endorsed the two treaties, and a resulting general election would inevitably have returned a government still in favour of them. So there was no pressure, moral or otherwise, to resign. It was ‘the people’ who had to think again. Mr Cameron’s upcoming referendum may be harder to ignore. If the European deal he presents to the electorate is rejected it will be the end of his career, possibly the implosion of the Tory Party and probably the dismemberment of the United Kingdom.
The only way out of this mess is for the citizens of the UK to use the referendum to ensure that we stay in the EU.