As noted in the Independent last Sunday, Nigel Farage has indicated that he will support a minority Conservative Government if Prime Minster David Cameron promises a referendum in 2015:
“The terms of my deal with the Tories would be very precise and simple. I want a full and fair referendum to be held in 2015 to allow Britons to vote on being in or out of the European Union. There would be no wiggle room for ‘renegotiation’ somewhere down the line’.
“The EU is facing an existential crisis and, given that it only takes a few weeks to launch and organise a referendum, it should be held in 2015.”
Although we would largely agree with the sentiments of a “full and fair” referendum, we would take issue with the “very precise and simple” demand that a referendum should be held in 2015 and “given that it only takes a few weeks to launch.” For the very precise and simple reason that it can’t be done. Farage is offering impossible terms on the practicality of timescale.
To support Farage’s demands comparisons are sometimes made with the 1975 referendum where it is claimed that it is possible to have a referendum in a few weeks, the timeline often quoted is as follows:
As we can see in 1975 the passage through Parliament to holding a referendum took circa 10 weeks (26 March – 5 June) from publishing the Bill to holding the Referendum. The 1975 Referendum book though notes (p.66):
“But the real reason for the unexpectedly easy passage of the Bill was political: pro-Marketeers were in an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons and they had belatedly realised that the referendum would go their way.”
Even with an easy passage it still took two and half months to have a referendum. The election in 2015 is in May, then there’s a summer recess so we can expect it to take longer. Especially when we consider that due to the complexity of an EU that has significantly evolved in over 40 years of UK membership and the less certainty of a referendum result, that its passage through Parliament will be more turbulent and difficult.
We have noted before regarding trying to win a referendum, 1975 is not 2015. The country has moved on in forty years. Procedures are now different, for example in 1975 the campaign started in January 1975 long before the Referendum Bill had been passed – with self-appointed “umbrella” groups.
… that in planning for any future referendums, not only in Scotland but also those held across or in other parts of the UK, governments should aim to ensure that legislation (including any secondary legislation) is clear at least six months before it is required to be implemented or complied with by campaigners, the Chief Counting Officer, Counting Officers or Electoral Registration Officers.
Thus “a reasonable period” according the Electoral Commission amounts to six months, as it argues to allow for (again my emphasis):
The benefit of this additional time was passed on to campaigners, EROs and COs in preparing for their respective roles at the referendum:
Campaigners were able to engage constructively with the legislative process and had time to develop an understanding of the relevant guidance and rules, before they came into force. EROs and COs benefitted from sufficient time to put robust plans in place for the delivery of their responsibilities under the legislation, from targeted public awareness activity to the booking of polling places and the training of staff.
In addition the Electoral Commission also recommends (again my emphasis):
2.39 Following the 2011 referendum on additional powers for the National Assembly for Wales and the Parliamentary Voting System for the House of Commons, we recommended that for future referendums the detailed rules should be clear at least 28 weeks in advance of polling day, based on a statutory regulated referendum campaign period of 16 weeks.
Although the Electoral Commission cannot demand, where it recommends will be taken into account should there be a challenge to the Bill and it goes to a Judicial Review as undoubtedly it would should there be any form of corner cutting or fast-tracking.
Yet even with a relatively smooth process by the Electoral Commission’s recommendations there would be a ten month delay between an Act of Parliament and a vote: that obviously takes us well into 2016.
In addition Farage thinks he can determine the referendum question:
“Do you wish to be a free, independent sovereign democracy?”
Despite the fact that the Electoral Commission has already put forward its proposals for the referendum question – its full report is here, Farage’s suggestion wouldn’t even pass the unambiguity test let alone the neutral one.
At this point I don’t know what to conclude. Either Farage is very poorly briefed which is a reflection on a lack of a decent research department despite having (now) 22 very well paid MEPs or he knows this and is deliberately demanding conditions that Cameron (or indeed anyone else) cannot possibly meet.
The latter of course allows UKIP to put forward the criticism that Cameron cannot be trusted which conveniently helps prop up Farage’s position. If one is to be cynical there’s nothing better than having a perpetual enemy to oppose to justify your own existence, especially in the absence of any party polices.
Either way the eurosceptic movement is being very poorly served by UKIP.