Sir John Major denied the public a referendum on Maastricht – how ironic he should want a second one on Brexit

Sir John Major denied the public a referendum on Maastricht – how ironic he should want a second one on Brexit

Sir John Major’s intervention over Brexit today comes as no surprise because he has consistently made the case for Britain’s membership of the EU, genuinely believing it is a cornerstone for our country’s success.

His intervention is, however, ill-advised – not least because he is defending a European Union that no longer exists, one that during his premiership between 1990 and 1997 could have worked in the interests of European citizens, but failed to do so. This was in part, sadly, down to his government’s role in creating the modern EU as we know it now: one firmly rejected by the British people.

I remember joining the then Prime Minister for a small dinner in the village of Stilton in his constituency after the 1992 election, shortly after the referendum in Denmark whose citizens fIrst rejected the Maastricht Treaty. He revealed a deep understanding of the motivation of then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterand for wanting an ever-closer union of European states based on their shared experiences of world war and the huge damage and cost to European citizens. This understanding helped him develop a relationship, particularly with Chancellor Kohl, that allowed him to mitigate some aspects of the Maastricht Treaty for the UK, but nevertheless left him in no doubt about the push later for new treaties and the formation of the modern EU as we know it.

Rejecting the opinion of the Danes after their first referendum on the treaty, and joining other European leaders in encouraging a second referendum, was in part motivated by the same thinking that drives Sir John’s call for a second referendum here in the UK: a belief in the EU, founded on the post-war consensus that bound nations together through trade and commerce, rather than divided by war conflict. Few would suggest these were anything but understandable and much-desired motivations, but they are not the drivers now nor explain or justify the supranational state that the EU has become in a fast-shrinking world powered by a global economy and easily-accessible global communications and travel.

And yet the Danes spotted the shortcomings of the then EC when they demanded, as part of their re-negotiation after the first referendum, more openness in EC affairs as well as the introduction of the concept of “subsidiarity” (the idea that decisions should be made at the most local level). Remember, this was in 1992, and of course after some concessions in 1993 the second Danish Referendum took place which resulted in acceptance of Maastricht, although their calls for reform were ignored.

Given that Sir John Major pushed the Maastricht Treaty through Parliament in what would now be considered a brutal parliamentary fashion, it is somewhat ironic that both he and his successor Tony Blair are calling for a second referendum for the British people – something they denied in their terms of office. Schooled by the Danish experience, and carrying the legacy of what was the European Community, rather than what became the democratically deficient and protectionist EU, their calls now for a “think again” referendum may well be genuinely motivated.

However, their call smacks of more of the old establishment whose hands are steeped in the causes of today’s EU failings of high unemployment, failed banking systems, democratic unaccountability and supranational courts, still trying to instruct a population on how they should think but who have in fact judged their’s and their successors’ EU integration as having failed. That’s why their calls will go unheeded.