Thursday, November 08, 2007

When will European federalists seek a democratic mandate?

When the New Statesman was revamped last year I complained about the prominence it now gives to comedians:
My great era of reading the Statesman was the late 1970s, and I have been trying to think what the magazine would have been like if it had taken the same approach then.

Something like this, I imagine:

* Freddie "Parrot-Face" Davies on the future of the Common Market;

* Dickie Henderson on the Palestine Question.

And next week:

* Mike and Bernie Winters debate the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy.
I remembered this when I saw Jeremy Hargreaves quoting the comedian Marcus Brigstocke to make the case against a referendum on the EU reform treaty. Jeremy describes an event at the Hackney Empire where Brigstocke asked the audience if anyone supported a referendum on the treaty. When a few people cheered, he continued:
Yes - we support having a referendum because it’s our democratic right.

Our democratic right - to vote in a referendum on a document we haven’t read

A document we have no intention of reading

Our democratic right to vote on something that we haven’t even read a summary of

A document we don’t even know anyone who has read.

But we want a referendum because it’s our democratic right.
Jeremy regards this as a clinching argument against a referendum:
Of course you can run through lots of familiar arguments about one of the features of democracy being people voting on issues in which they are not experts. But in a democratic vote people do normally have at least some general idea of the implications of voting one way or the other.
Note the use of the word "familiar". It reminds me of the way that authoritarian politicians talk about "predictable" complaints when they propose some draconian new measure. In both cases there is the unspoken implication that if an argument has been heard before it is somehow devalued and can therefore be ignored. This is, of course, a wholly illegitimate way of reasoning.

These arguments are "familiar" because the ability of the average citizen to challenge the policies of the experts lies at the heart of democracy. If I were writing this at home I would take down my copy of volume 1 of The Open and Society and its Enemies and quote chunks of Popper on the subject.

As it is, I shall merely point out that at some stage European federalists will have to win the support of the British people for their project. As I wrote in August:
The most important issue at the past three general elections ought to have been Britain's relations with Europe - first the single currency and later the proposed new European constitution. Instead these questions have been consistently dodged by the government promising referendums on them at some unspecified future dates.
If we are not to be allowed that referendum, the federalists will have to find a new way of keeping it out of the election campaign.

The current enthusiasm for a referendum on British membership of the EU tout court seems to me a calculated attempt to prevent what may well be the majority view of the electorate - that they are in favour of European economic cooperation but wary of further political integration - being given effective expression.

I am agnostic on the deeper European project and remain open to conviction. But if federalists never dare put their case to the people, how will anyone ever be converted?


Nich Starling said...

You echo a point I have made several times, but perhaps say it with more style.

Wel done.

David said...

I was also at the Hackney Empire for the "Bonfire of the Liberties" show organised by Liberty (didn't see Jeremy). Jonathan, you rightly argue that federalists have failed to put their case to the electorate and I agree. However, you use the term "federalist" in the same loose way as the government and the tabloids to mean anyone in favour of further political integration, whereas in fact federalists propose one model among many. Referendums are poor instruments for deciding many questions particularly the ratification of treaties, dressed up as they are in acres of diplomatic verbiage, whereas broader but simpler questions like "Do you want the UK to be a member of the European Union" may at least allow a debate and a clear response.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for commenting on wot I wrote.

I'm not sure I'd quite say that I think Brigstocke's words were the 'clinching argument' for me on this point - I'd like to think that my views on this are a bit more thought through than just being swung by a few words from a comedian! In what I have written on all this, for example over this summer, the complexity and lack of interest of the public in the document, have been central to my argument against holding a referendum on it.

And I also didn't mean to dismiss the point about democracy being about rule by non-experts, by describing it as familiar (though I can see why you might have thought that) - indeed I think this is now clear from some of what I have said in the interesting discussion that has been going on in the comments thread on my original piece. I'd be happy to accept "correct" in place of "familiar". In fact I think perhaps "established" is what I was trying to say, though I accept that may not have been clear.

You are right that a referendum is a tool lacking in nuance, and that a referendum on continuing UK membership of the EU or not, would not allow people to express their support for some elements of UK membership, while not others. But equally a referendum on this treaty of detail suffers from the same problem: you would like the opportunity to say you can live with the way things have developed so far in the EU, but wouldn't like to see it going any further (by the way this sounds like a dictionary definition of a 'conservative' position!). But voting on this treaty would also not allow you to do that - a 'no' vote would simply be a vote against a lot of very sensible procedural reforms, most of which make the EU's functioning more democratic and transparent.

And indeed I do not accept that this treaty is, as it seems clear you regard it, as particularly a further move towards transferring powers to the EU, as you say it is. The Maastricht Treaty gave us the Single Currency, and European competence in justice and home affairs matters, and foreign affairs, for the first time. The Single European Act created European competence on regulation of industry and a whole swathe of changes to regulation. This one gives, some procedural details about how the EU operates. I wholeheartedly support things it introduces like the Council meeting in public when legislating, but I would hardly call a referendum on it.

I'm not quite sure how you're trying to portray me, but I'm afraid I think David is absolutely right on the use of the term 'federalist' - it can mean lots of things but here you are using it simply to mean 'integrationist', which is a very different thing indeed. As with 'familiar', it's important not to use emotive terms just to try and dismiss your opponent's viewpoint...:)

However like you, I see General Elections as the correct central element in the British public making decisions on this, as every other, issue. I've certainly tried to do my bit to get us as a party to talk about Europe more at General Elections, and in between them.

Anonymous said...

A general election? You mean an election which is fought over a number of manifestos?

Documents most people have not read.

Documents most people have no intention of reading

Our democratic right to vote on things that most people haven’t even read a summary of

Documents most people don’t even know anyone who has read.

Still, it's our right, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Well obviously that's right - but as I've said in a number of places now, I think the qualitative difference is that at a GE most people do have *at least some* idea of the consequences of voting a particular way. I don't think that's the case with this referendum (but would be with a referendum on continuing UK membership).

Tristan said...

Well said.

Jeremy's last attempt at defending the position is nonsensical.

The reason people have an idea on what they're voting on in a GE is that there has been a campaign to try and persuade them of the consequences.

If we had a referendum on membership the campaigners on both sides would put their cases.

It seems to me, either the pro-EU people are scared of the confrontation because they can't make a case, or they believe that the British people are too stupid to make the 'right' decision.

I'm pretty much agnostic on membership, although I disagree with much of what the EU does and how it does it, if you can demonstrate the benefits and a way forward then I could easily be persuaded to vote for continued membership.

At the moment I really don't know because the pro-EU lobby is pretty much silent, except to occasionally mention hints of destruction and woe if we leave...

Richard Gadsden said...

My concern about the referendum on Europe is that the press will simply lie about the implications of the treaty.

If the referendum was about "Do you want Britain to be run by Germans?" as the Sun is likely to describe it, then even I, an avowed federalist, would vote no. Of course, I know it isn't, but I fear that many other people won't have a clue.