Friday, June 17, 2016

Scribbling on the constitution: A referendum on Europe was always a bad idea

Margaret Thatcher, quoting Clement Attlee, once described referendums "a device of dictators and demagogues".

She was right.

A referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union was always a bad idea and it has had an unlovely effect on our politics - or at least revealed a side of it that is usually well buried.

For a discussion of that effect I recommend articles by Alex Massie and the great Neal Ascherson.

Reader's voice: Come off it! You are only saying this because you are afraid your side is going to lose.

Not so.

I have been saying the same thing for many years. Most substantially, as far as I can recall, in this article for the much-missed Liberal Democrat News in 2011:
For years the main parties have engaged in something close to a conspiracy. The issue of Europe has been taken out of general elections, with the promise that it will be decided through a referendum. Those referendums never take place. The result has been an infantilisation of debate on Europe, as politicians are allowed to take up self-indulgent, extreme positions they know they will never have to defend to the electorate. 
This process has been bad for us Liberal Democrats, encouraging the idea that all we need do to prosper is not offend anybody and deliver lots and lots of leaflets. And it has been bad for democracy as a whole. Why should voters feel enthusiastic about Westminster when their representatives avoid talking about one of the most important issues facing the country?
But don't take my word for it: read a guest post by Paul Evans on Slugger O'Toole, the best blog on Northern Ireland politics.

In 2010 he gave 14 reasons why the move to introduce referendums to British politics should be resisted, The European referendum campaign has proved he was right in every case.

Here are a couple of examples:
  • They drive out the deliberative element in policymaking. The referendum question is an appeal to reflexes rather than an attempt to get a thoughtful response from the public. 
  • They hand enormous powers to newspaper proprietors and people with the finances to take one side of the argument. It also hands the reins of government over to unelected and well-heeled pressure groups.
I am a believer in representative government - what George Watson called The English Ideology. It is the cornerstone of our constitution.

The Conservative Party used to be united by its belief in upholding that constitution. Today, most of its members, and many of its MPs, would rather scribble on it.


Tim (Kalyr) said...

This toxic referendum is an unintended consequence of an earlier referendum in the last Parliament.

Cameron promised this referendum to protect his flank against UKIP in the 2015 election, where he feared UKIP syphoning off Tory votes in Labour-Tory marginals. It was probably misplaced because it subsequently turned out UKIP were as much of a threat to Labour.

Had the 2015 election been fought under AV, that calculus would have been irrelevant.

AV should never have been put to a referendum, but decided by Parliament like everything else.

Anonymous said...

Correction needed: the piece from Slugger O'Toole was written, not by the Slugger himself, but by Paul Evans, who's written several similar pieces on assorted blogs over the years.
Personally I'm unconvinced, for the same reason as the first commenter on the piece at Slugger was: that every argument against referendums is also an argument against elections. The real question for Evans and those who think like him is this: if you really believe that the population at large are so stupid, gullible, malleable (etc.) that they can't be trusted to vote, whether in referendums or in elections, why not come out and say so, instead of hiding behind the mask of high-minded policy-wonkery?

Jonathan Calder said...

Thanks Anonymous, I have edited the post.

As to the rest of your comment, isn't it more interesting to engage with what people actually write rather than make up a caricature of it?

Anonymous said...

Yes, it would be more interesting - if I hadn't read several versions of Evans's arguments against referendums already, and if I hadn't noticed that Evans never actually addresses the point that those arguments apply equally to elections, making it legitimate to infer that, whether he is fully aware of it or not, he is actually arguing against democracy itself. The fact that you dismiss that criticism as a "caricature", and thus join him in evading it, speaks volumes.

Jonathan Calder said...

Anonymous (if you are the same Anonymous), you wrote:

"If you really believe that the population at large are so stupid, gullible, malleable (etc.) that they can't be trusted to vote, whether in referendums or in elections, why not come out and say so, instead of hiding behind the mask of high-minded policy-wonkery?"

You think that is a fair account of my and Paul Evans' views: I think it is a caricature.

Let's leave the other readers to judge.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough. Here's an idea: why not hold a referendum of your readers on the topic? ;)

Anonymous said...

I don't believe in referendums, but the need to stay in the EU prompts my support for a second one as the only way through this mess. I don't want further referendums on anything else ever, but do want mandatory consultation on many more issues using tools like citizens juries and the like.
Pleas sign the petition. If over 17 million sign it we may get the chance to remain.