For more than 150 years, elections in this country have been conducted on the basis of manifestos. Politicians set out their agenda, legislative proposals and aspirations for the country. People might not actually read the damn things, but the main points are always sufficiently well-covered by the media that voters generally have some kind of idea of the main points, and expect the politicians to deliver. But does a manifesto actually mean anything? In court in Brighton today, barrister James Fenton tried to argue that manifesto commitments gave rise to a "legitimate expectation" that they would be kept, and should thus be legally enforceable.
Contesting the case, Cecilia Ivimy, representing the government, declared that
A manifesto promise is incapable of giving rise to a legally binding contract with the electorate. It is a point which is so obvious that I don't want to labour it.
The judge agreed. He summarily dismissed the case, brought by former Labour party (now UKIP) member Stuart Bower in an attempt to force the government to honour its promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Of course, Bower was never likely to win. But he did at least succeed in gaining some publicity and, perhaps, causing the government some embarrassment. In that sense, he did a valuable service.
It's now official. Manifesto commitments aren't worth the paper they're written on.
Nothing new there, you might think. Only the terminally naive really expect politicians to keep all their promises. Yet in many ways the case of the vanishing referendum is truly exceptional. Generally, government ministers do pay lip-service to their manifesto commitments, and it is an unspoken convention that neither backbench MPs nor the House of Lords will ultimately block a proposal if it has been set out in black and white. At election time, manifesto pledges are subjected to widespread scrutiny and debate, and when the next election comes along the government is always judged, at least partly, on the extent to which its promises were made good. A manifesto might not be a legally binding contract, but it does mean something.
Not in this case. Using the technical get-out that this was no longer a "constitution" but merely a treaty, ministers cynically reversed their previous argument in its favour, which was (as those with longer memories might recall) that, although it was described as a "constitution", the previous document, now re-orchestrated, was little more than a "tidying-up exercise". No-one denies that the new treaty retains all the significant changes of the constitution, everything, in other words, that would have formed the basis of a referendum debate.
Why has the government so cynically betrayed its crystal-clear commitment set out in the manifesto? Partly, of course, because it feared it might lose: but other European governments have lost referendums without collapsing, and a decisive No vote would only have strengthened the government's hand when the treaty came to be renegotiated. No; this was part of a Europe-wide stitch-up. Leaders decided that (except in Ireland, where there are explicit constitutional guarantees and a referendum cannot be avoided) the Lisbon treaty would be decided without reference to the public. Basically, Europe is too important to be left to the people of Europe. Only politicians and political elites are to be trusted to deliver. We're in charge, is the message. You aren't. Get used to it.
It is not, of course, merely the people of Britain who have suffered from this monstrous breach of faith. The people of France and the Netherlands actually voted to reject the constitution, as this treaty used to be known. By ratifying Lisbon, the French and Dutch governments are acting directly contrary to the democratically-expressed wishes of their people.
Traditionally, British Eurosceptics have painted Britain into a corner. "They" (Europe) are out to get "us" (Britain), is the message. And British politicians, alert to this narrative, are keen to portray themselves as doughty fighters for British national interests, even as they sign away yet more areas of national independence. But as the saga of the rejected and re-invented Constitution shows, it's not a question of Britain versus the continent. It's about democracy versus bureaucracy, people versus elites, the governments versus the governed. We're in charge, is the message. You aren't. Get used to it.