Dr Ben Wellings, Convenor of European Studies and Adjunct of the ANU Centre for European Studies, Australian National University
30 Oct 2012
CIT Auditorium, National University of Singapore Computer Centre (Level 2), 2 Engineering Drive 4, Singapore 117584
10.30 – 12.00noon
When the current British government was formed after the 2010 general election, the presence of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats in the Conservative Party-led coalition made some observers assume that eurosceptics within the Conservative party would remain quiet. Yet the issue of the United Kingdom’s relations with the EU have begun to occupy centre-stage, even fuelling talk of the UK possibly exiting the EU altogether. All these issues have been manifested through the passing of the EU Act and the parliamentary debate on the so-called “in/out” referendum on the EU.
To frame an understanding of the current state of affairs characterised as ‘referendum lock’, Dr Wellings focused on the contradiction between the time-honoured British principle of parliamentary sovereignty versus that of “popular” sovereignty as borne out through the supposedly growing appetite for referendums in the UK. Such a contradiction is to be found in the EU Act of 2011.
The principle of parliamentary sovereignty is perhaps best exemplified in Edmund Burke’s famed Speech to the Electors of Bristol of 1774. It enshrined the concept of representative government in which the people have elected their politicians to act in their common interest.
This principle sits uneasily with the practice of holding referendums. In fact, referendums have sometimes been disparagingly referred to as a ‘continental [i.e. European] abrogation’. The first UK-wide referendum was held only in 1974 – on membership of the European Economic Community – in a form borrowed from Australia.
In Dr Wellings’ framing, the Conservatives had defended the principle of parliamentary sovereignty by enshrining it in the EU Act 2011; but they have also pandered to populist sentiments, which have been gravitating towards the UK Independence Party, by promising a referendum on the EU. The tensions in UK-EU relations are well publicised in the media, but Dr Wellings emphasised the importance of acknowledging the tensions between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in government, as well as the tension between the idea of parliamentary sovereignty and populist politics.
In the question and answer segment, issues such as the relationship between eurosceptic politicians in the UK and in other EU member states were raised, as was another major topic in British politics at the current moment – the referendum on independence for Scotland to be held in 2014, and the implications that has for UK-EU and Scotland-EU relations.