Some versions of the claim specify that rather than being the first party ever, they were the first “mainstream” party to campaign for an in/out referendum. That’s an important distinction. It’s correct the Liberal Democrats were the first mainstream party to campaign for this (if we take mainstream to mean the largest three parties over the last century). It’s incorrect they were the first ever party to call for a referendum.
The claims are careful to specify an “in/out” referendum, as there have previously been calls by other parties to have more limited referendums on changes to EU treaties.
The first party to campaign for an EU referendum?
While pinning down ‘who said what first’ is always a tricky business, we can say with certainty the Lib Dems weren’t the first party to make the case for an EU referendum.
In 1995 the Referendum Party was formed, calling for a full referendum on EU membership. It was the fourth biggest party in terms of vote share at the 1997 general election, winning just under 3% of the national vote, but no seats.
Other parties had also previously suggested that the UK should leave the EU altogether (although not necessarily using a referendum). For example, the Labour Party in its 1983 election manifesto set out a plan for how the UK would leave the European Economic Community. From the late 1980s the Labour Party became much more in favour of EEC, and then EU, membership.
Leaving the EU has also been a policy of UKIP’s prior to the Liberal Democrats’ campaign for a referendum. For example, UKIP's 2005 general election manifesto called for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, but made no reference to a referendum on the matter.
The first “mainstream” party to campaign for an EU referendum?
To the best of our knowledge, the Liberal Democrats were the first of the three major UK parties, including Labour and the Conservatives, to campaign for a referendum on EU membership. We’ve found no evidence of the other parties doing so prior to the Liberal Democrats.
In 2007 Vince Cable, who at the time was acting party leader, wrote that the Liberal Democrats wanted to table a motion in parliament calling for “for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union”. The party then published a leaflet which has been dated to around 2008 saying it wanted a referendum, that the Labour party did not, and that the Conservatives only wanted a “limited” referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The leaflet also said that the Liberal Democrats would campaign to remain in any such referendum.
In 2008 then-party leader Nick Clegg was quoted in the Guardian saying it was time for a referendum: “Nobody in this country under the age of 51 has ever been asked that simple question. That includes half of all MPs. We've been signed up to Europe by default: two generations who have never had their say.” He also confirmed in the article that he was pro-EU.
That same year Ed Davey MP, the foreign affairs spokesperson for the party, was barred from the chamber in the House of Commons after a protest at the Speaker’s decision not to allow MPs to vote on whether to have a referendum on EU membership. That same day the now-leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson said “the Liberal Democrats would like to have a referendum on the major issue of whether we are in or out of Europe.”
The Liberal Democrats 2010 election manifesto expanded on the party’s position, saying “The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.” It also reiterated similar sentiments in its 2015 election manifesto.
Former-Prime Minister David Cameron first made a commitment to a referendum on leaving or remaining in the European Union in 2013.
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