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Without treaty change Britain will vote to leave the European Union, says Lord Owen

The campaign to keep Britain in the EU will be defeated unless the government secures treaty change before the referendum, according to former Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen. He made his remarks as part of a major speech on referendums, at the Mile End Institute's Inaugural Hennessy Lecture.

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He said: “If the British government reach an agreement in principle before the end of 2017, but do not achieve real and specific treaty changes prior to a UK referendum, then I believe we will see a vote to leave carrying the day.”

He said that, unlike the 1975 referendum, voters have a deeply formed view of the EU. He described the forthcoming referendum as “a judgment on Europe’s record, achievements and failures”.

“In comparing the forthcoming campaigns with that of the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ campaigns in 1975, we need to reflect on the fact that 40 years ago the British people felt they were at the start of our engagement with the then Common Market, as it was widely referred to, having only been in it for less than two and a half years. There was then no foreign policy for a European Union, no defence policy." 

He added: "Today, we are haunted, enthused, angry or bored - according to personal choice - by the EU's record, not least in foreign policy and in provoking the crisis in Ukraine. That mood is dominated by a widely felt disappointment in the European dream.” 

Lord Owen, Foreign Secretary from 1977-79, said: “I see NATO as essential. Trident is an expensive financial inroad into our conventional defence effort.”

“For the UK to pull out of NATO, which has primarily a conventional strategy, and holds in reserve a nuclear weapon deterrent, would be devastating - far, far more damaging than the UK voting to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum. Yet these two decisions will interact in the referendum as long as there is any doubt about Labour's commitment to NATO."

He added: "Jeremy Corbyn needs to make it clear in the context of the European referendum that he will keep the UK firmly in NATO, whether we are in or out of the EU, and that he will examine whether to retain a minimum deterrent if he becomes Prime Minister after the General Election.”


On the question of Scotland, Lord Owen said: “The case for another constitutional referendum on Scottish separation depends on it being exceptional not a running event.”

Lord Owen said the Labour Party should embrace a cross-party progressive alliance - and establish a Constitutional Convention - if it is to have any chance of achieving power in 2020. He said Labour should, with other parties, promise to legislate for a federal UK as a manifesto commitment, but not by a referendum.

On Labour’s chances in the next election, he said: “I have no hesitation in saying that if Labour are to stand a chance in 2020 they will have to become more open-minded on making individual seat deals with any interested parties within a truly progressive alliance.”

  • The annual Hennessy Lecture is in honour of the Mile End Institute's patron, Professor Peter Hennessy

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Paul Jordan
Faculty Communications Manager (HSS)