Besides the fact that Labour has basically lied to the electorate (dont all political parties lie?) this raises a curious question in my mind. Labour promised to have a referendum (page 84 in its 2005 manifesto) on the that piece of rubbish called as the EU Constitution. The Constitution was rejected. So the EU politicians, thinking that we are all stupid, shifted some words around, renamed it and stuck it in front of the politicians who signed up with alacrity and promptly forgot all about the referendum. This Labour Government wriggled out of that promise.
The Conservatives have promised to hold one or whatever, but they are even less trustworthy than Labour going by past performance (I hope they have improved since then..). But here's the thing, somebody has taken the Government to court over this issue and the Honourable Judge agreed! This promises to be an interesting fight, but beyond this crucial issue of Europe, lies a more conceptual issue.
If a Government says something, does it become something that you can impose legally? I quote:
His lawyer, Rabinder Singh QC, said the application for judicial review was based on "the underlying fundamental principles of good administration, fair play and straight dealing with the public".
One way of looking at that statement is, The Government lied to us, My Lordship Judge, and we need justice. The other way is what the defending QC said and I quote:
But Philip Sales QC, for the office of the prime minister, denied that Gordon Brown or Foreign Secretary David Miliband had made any unambiguous and unqualified representation amounting to a promise to hold a referendum. He also said the claim was "misconceived" as a ratification of an international treaty was not open to challenge in the High Court and would breach Parliamentary privilege.
So, the government's defence is, Sorry, My Lord, we didnt lie and in any case, even if we did lie, you cannot do anything about it as we are Parliament, you cannot judge us.
I think the results of this case if successful will impact the world far and wide (British legal judgements, by dint of history, commercial arbitration presence in the UK, etc. etc.). Politicians have to think very carefully about what they promise voters because if they do not fulfil those promises, they can be forced to do so by the court. So?
Well, two things can happen. (1) It might happen that political parties do not promise anything that is concrete. Which is a tragedy. (2) Populist single issue or extremist parties will emerge who can promise the world and then do it. In Government, the wild and wooly promises are generally toned down (like you saw with both US Democratic candidates who said one thing publicly about Canadian imports but their staff members said something else in private - to the effect, that was only for public consumption, once in power, nothing will be done..). But in this case, they will be forced to do so...