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Tactics or strategy? The debate on use of a referendum for British ratification of the Constitutional Treaty

Simon Usherwood

Since the early 1990s, there has been a persistent and insistent debate within the British political classes about the desirability of having a referendum on the European Union, either on the occasion of a treaty ratification or more generally on the wider issue of British membership. However, such calls failed to become the official policy of a governing party, until 2004, when Tony Blair declared his intention to hold a popular vote on the Constitutional Treaty. This paper explores the reasons behind this change of policy, in both tactical and strategic perspectives. At the tactical level, party politics was the predominant driver, both in terms of inter-party competition and of Blair's status within the Labour party. Strategically, the move reflected a gamble to recast the relationship with the EU and British popular attitudes towards it. It is argued that despite the shift in public debate about a referendum, so that pro-EU voices became much more important, the popular dimension was largely irrelevant in the decision. This reflects a key shortcoming not only of the debate in the UK on European integration, but also more generally on the failure of the Laeken process to address its central aim of reconnecting with the people.

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