, Volume 91, Number 1

Tim Oliver

The idea of holding an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union has increasingly become a norm of British politics, an act seen as a necessary step for the country to answer what David Cameron described as the ‘European question in British politics’. A referendum, it is hoped, will cleanse British politics of a poisonous debate about Europe and democratically sanction a new stable UK–EU relationship, whether the UK stays in or leaves. Such hopes expect more of a referendum than it can provide. The European question is a multifaceted one and whatever the result of a referendum it is unlikely to address underlying questions that will continue to cause problems for UK–EU relations and Britain’s European debate. A referendum can be a step forward in better managing the relationship and debate, but it is only that: a single step, after which further steps will be needed. Coming to terms with the European question and bringing stability to Britain’s relations with the EU—whether in or outside the EU—will require comprehensive, longer-term changes which a referendum can help trigger but in no way guarantee.