Members of the European Union parliament vote in Strasbourg, December 2013. Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty.
Show Hide image

The EU has provided us with the best Europe we’ve ever had

Far from giving a voice to the people, the point of an EU referendum is to give a voice to a section of the Conservative Party.

We hear about the tactics of a referendum on membership of the European Union but little about the points of principle and substance that it raises. We need to look at these, too, otherwise we could sleepwalk into something stupid.

Why does David Cameron want a referendum on Europe?

That is simple. It is for the same reason as Harold Wilson proposed one in 1975: to deal with his divided party by appealing to higher authority. There is no popular demand for a referendum, but if you ask people in opinion polls whether they want to have a vote on EU membership, you can get a positive answer; if you backed a poll with a media campaign, you could probably get the same answer on many questions.

We have not seen large demonstrations demanding a referendum. Indeed, most voters do not care much about the EU: it comes somewhere between tenth and 15th in the issues voters list as important. Even for Ukip voters, the EU is not the most important question.

The big demand for a referendum comes from those in the Conservative Party who want to leave the EU but can’t see a way to get a majority in parliament for it. Cameron himself probably doesn’t want to take Britain out of Europe; hence his policy of trying to put this off until after the next election, in the hope that something may turn up.

Cameron’s position, though not noble, is understandable – it reflects weakness. It is less easy to understand why some in the Labour Party want to imitate it. Is it because they are afraid of the proposition that “the British people should have the right to choose”? This leads to a second question.

Are referendums a good way to make decisions?

This is also easy to answer: no. It is shameful that few political leaders are ready to say so. Democracy is not just about voting. It is also about debate and about responsibility.

Debate is necessary to understand complex issues. We invented representative democracy because debate is time-consuming and it is not practical in a modern state to assemble the whole population in market squares to debate issues. (In Athens the people were able to do this because citizens were few and they had helots and women to do the work.) Under the system of government “by the people”, the people choose the government and then hold it accountable when they don’t like what it does. If referendums are “more democratic” than decisions by parliament, why not make decisions about taxation or electricity prices by referendum, as has been tried in California (and then the lights went out)? When bad decisions are made in this way, who takes responsibility?

For years, both parties resisted calls for  a referendum on capital punishment because they feared there would be a majority in favour of it. Over time and through long debates, parliament became convinced by the evidence that capital punishment had no deterrent value and that innocent people had been hanged. Yet they feared that, in a referendum, the debate would be shallow and voters would follow prejudice rather than the evidence.

The referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) showed how difficult it can be to generate a serious debate on matters that are important but complicated where mastery of the detail demands time.

Yes, but shouldn’t we decide constitutional questions by referendum?

We seem to be drifting towards this idea. Recently on the Today programme in a discussion about some question of British institutions (it may have been the size of the House of Lords), one of the presenters said: “But isn’t this the sort of thing we’d have to have a referendum on?” We don’t have to have a referendum on anything unless parliament decides to call one.

If we did decide that constitutional change required a referendum, we would have to start by defining what was and  what was not a constitutional question. Many laws – on race relations, capital punishment, the franchise and electoral systems, abortion – might or might not be part of a constitution.

Our present system of making no distinction between constitutional and other law gives us a flexible system. Usually constitutions are written as though they were going to last for ever; they never do. Some of the most important parts of the US constitution are in the amendments to it; yet now it seems impossible to secure further amendment. So the Supreme Court ends up doing a job that belongs in the political and not in the legal arena.

The sovereignty of parliament is a good principle because it allows maximum space for political decision-making and maximum opportunity for debate on issues  that are always complex. It is alarming  that no one, including those in the party  of Edmund Burke, seems ready to defend this principle.

In 1975 they did better. A powerful speech was made opposing the Wilson referendum by the new leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher. Since then parliament seems to have lost confidence in itself. So, we might ask:

What has gone wrong with parliament?

This is less easy to answer. There is a growing feeling of separation between the mass of the people and the so-called political class. The Conservative Party’s very obsession with the EU illustrates this. Far from giving a voice to the people, the point of a referendum is to give a voice to a section of the Conservative Party.

One reason why people feel less represented by the House of Commons is that the two big parties are less representative of the people than they used to be. In the 1950s the Conservative Party had three million members and the Labour Party one million, together with an organic link to a broadly based trade union movement. Both parties were social as well as political organisations. They reflected a society more sharply divided and less diverse than today’s; but between them they were representative of the population in a way that their successors today are not.

Having parties that are dominant (because of the electoral system) but weak (because they are disconnected from society) together with a chamber strong on party discipline and adversarial politics is not an attractive combination. It is only on the rare occasions when this breaks down – as recently over Syria – that we get a little of the thrill of democracy in action.

And so what is to be done?

We ought to understand democracy as an evolutionary process. We are lucky to have a constitution that makes change easy. Constitutions need to keep in step with an evolving society.

In the 65 years between 1880 and 1945 we went through several constitutional revolutions. In the 65-plus years since 1945, however, not much has changed, at least not compared to the vast and sweeping changes in British society.

An open debate is needed. My own answers would be to effect a change in the electoral system to make politics more competitive, and to make parties more open to influence from the voters. Add a House of Lords chosen by lottery, as juries are. This would require some thought and reorganisation. But it would give us two houses, each representing the people in a different sense of the term “represent”.

Churchill’s remark that the best argument against democracy is a three-minute conversation with the average voter is apposite as an argument against referendums: three minutes of conversation or consideration is no way to make sense of anything. But a representative sample of the electorate, free from party whips and debating issues that matter to ordinary people, would breathe new life into parliament.

While we are at it we should do something about the funding of political parties. The present non-system brings unhealthy relations with the few, and the distrust of the many. How about a system in which all taxpayers could allocate a tiny part of their taxes, either to the government budget of their choice – health, education, development, defence – or to a political party? Plus strict limits on donations.

The chances of such a radical programme are not great. Those in power often think that the arrangements which got them there must, ipso facto, be a good thing. Yet the renewal of states very often begins with renewal of institutions.

Such changes would be experiments. Put them in place for ten years, with a sunset clause; then debate them again. In the end, democracy is one long experiment.

But this is straying from the main subject.

Wouldn’t a referendum settle the question of the EU once and for all?

No. If that were the case, it would have been settled by the 1975 referendum – when two-thirds of the British voters elected to remain in the EU.

Those who want to leave now argue that we were tricked, or that Britain has changed since then, or that the EU has changed. These arguments will be available again whenever anyone wants to use them.

Is that all? No. We should also fear  the referendum because it might end in Britain leaving the European Union.

Probably some of those who tell opinion pollsters that they would vote to leave would think again if the question became real. But the conditions are different from those of 1975. The leading figures opposing membership then were from the fringes (Peter Shore, Enoch Powell, Tony Benn) and the media were almost unanimously in favour. Now we have had ten years of the drumbeat of media opposition.

Referendums are unpredictable – never a good way to govern a country – and we might end up out. That would be stupid.


In broad terms there are three ways of looking at the EU. On a practical level, the main product of the EU is regulation. There is good regulation and bad regulation; but there is no escape. No one is going to buy British products that do not meet inter­national standards. Those standards are set mostly by the EU or the US. If the UK wants to be at the table when the standards are  set it has to belong to the EU; otherwise it will have to follow regulations that someone else has made.

From the point of view of realpolitik, which is the usual British way of thinking about foreign policy, a permanent coalition of European states to which we did not belong is the nightmare of British policymakers through all the ages, as I think Douglas Hurd once said. Happily, today this would not be a coalition that would threaten British security, but it might be tempted from time to time to take economic advantage of the UK’s absence to organise things in ways that suited their interests and not ours. In fact, it would be a surprise if it didn’t. Ask Norway; or look at how the EU developed in Britain’s absence from 1956 to 1973.

Or, if you believe (as I do) that international politics does not always have to be about the balance of power, the EU (with its twin, Nato) is, for all its faults, a kind of political miracle: the most successful collaboration among sovereign states ever achieved. In spite of the mess of the euro, it is still admired and imitated on other continents. This is the best Europe we have ever had; and Britain, as an influential member, has been a force for good in it. Both altruism and self-interest tell us to remain.

These three perspectives – which are not contradictory – all point to one conclusion. Much in the EU needs to be fixed. With 28 sovereign states around the table, that will be a slow and clumsy process. But the euro crisis has brought a more sober mood and the advocates of unending integration in every area are a dying breed.

There could not be a better moment to work with others for a programme of reform. That would make sense. A referendum makes none. l

Robert Cooper worked for Javier Solana and Catherine Ashton at the EU until last year. He is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations

Show Hide image

When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror