June last year the Brits rather upset political pundits, betting markets, our international allies and common sense by voting to leave the EU. I will save the reasons for this decision for another post (/rant), but I thought I’d start this jolly (and not at all bitter) series by laying out why Britain decided to hold a referendum in the first place.
In the heady and blissful days of 2013, the Conservatives were in a coalition government with the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems are pretty relaxed about the EU, but the Conservatives have always been rather divided on the issue of Europe, to put it mildly.
The Conservatives were facing an electoral challenge from a smaller anti-EU party called UKIP. In fact, in 2013 it seemed like the Labour Party’s best chance to win an election would be the Conservatives losing votes to UKIP and pro-EU Labour coming through the middle.
So in darkened smoke-filled room the Conservative elite figured out an ingenious strategy: They would promise to hold a referendum on EU membership if they won the 2015 election. If you wanted to leave the EU, they argued, you shouldn’t vote for the anti-EU party, but for the Conservatives, because then you would get the referendum you so badly craved, and if Labour won there would be no referendum.
The then Prime Minister could tell older provincial people that he had their back while telling financiers, who were reasonably worried about planting a bomb under the UK economy “No worries, we’ll win the referendum, unite the party, cut your taxes and reach for the champagne.” Nudge nudge, wink wink. All good so far.
It also seemed likely in 2013 that the Conservatives would need the support of the Lib Dems to stay in power after the 2015 election. The Lib Dems would never support a referendum on EU membership, because they’re imminently sensible and don’t have a wing of old fogies harking back to the days of empire. (Comes with the liberal turf, I suppose).
It seemed, then, that this was a great, low risk strategy to win voters. However, it turned out the plan worked a little too well. Partly as a result of their carefully designed message, the Conservatives won the election, had to hold the referendum and managed to lose it!
That is briefly how we came to have a referendum. In coming posts I will explore more deep-seated reasons for why the UK, usually so content with following authority sent a massive two fingers up to Conservatives and their crew of high financiers and political elite.