Letter from Westminster

One of the changes that this government has made to parliament which does not get a great deal of attention outside of Westminster has been to hand over control of a chunk of parliamentary time to a committee of backbenchers. Up until the last election the subject for debate was controlled entirely by the govern­ment with only a few days handed over to the opposition parties.

From the government’s point of view this made life much easier as it allowed it to control the agenda and issues which did not suit it to debate simply never got an airing.

The change made it easier, for example, to get a debate on the subject of coastguard stations when that was first proposed. Under the old rules backbenchers would have struggled to get an issue of that sort aired in prime time in the House of Commons.

The committee now has a mech­anism where a petition of 100,000 voters can open the door to a parliamentary debate and on Monday we shall see one of the first of these debates when the house debates the holding of a referendum on leaving the European Union. In fact the government has already passed law to ensure that whenever there is a treaty change which involves a transfer of sovereignty from the UK to the EU there will be a referendum. Obvi­ously there is bound to be a treaty change at some time and at that point there will be a vote. This reflects the manifesto on which I stood at the last election.

The truth is that since the UK voted to go in to the Common Market in the 1970s Europe has changed beyond recognition. The Common Market became the Euro­pean Economic Community, which became the European Community, which in turn became the European Union. The single market has been created and many EU members have set up a single European currency. All that has been done by a process of salami slicing on which the public never been consulted. That is not sustainable indefinitely.

As an issue the shape of the European Union has divided and poisoned British politics for a generation. Holding a referendum on a simple question of whether we should remain part of the EU – answer yes or no – will draw some of that poison. Unfortunately that is not what is on offer from the promoters of the motion on Monday so I shall vote against their rather convoluted proposal. I hope and believe that, when it came to the crunch, the UK would vote for continued membership of the EU. That would free British politicians to take a much more active role engaging in EU decision making as their doing so would have a greater democratic legitimacy. Those who wish to live in isolation and to ignore the realities of the a globalised economy dominated by large trading blocs would finally be forced to face the realities of our future.

Alistair Carmichael


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