Thursday, November 03, 2016

Margaret Thatcher was right about referendums

Perhaps the late Lord Attlee was right when he said that the referendum was a device of dictators and demagogues.
That was Margaret Thatcher speaking in a 1975 Commons debate as Harold Wilson called a referendum on Europe to paper over Labour's divisions on Europe.

Earlier in the debate she had quoted a letter that Roy Jenkins had written to The Times in 1972, which shows why that observation was in her mind:
"It may be argued ... that the EEC referendum would be a once-for-all operation. The device would never be used again. Who can possibly say that? 
Once the principle of the referendum has been introduced into British politics, it will not rest with any one party to put a convenient limit to its use. And most history shows, as Clem Attlee pointed out with terse force in 1945, that it is a splendid weapon for demagogues and dictators."
The referendum on Scottish independence and on British membership of the European Union have shown that Attlee was right, Roy Jenkins was right and Margaret Thatcher was right.

One of the strengths of British Conservatism has always been that it had little time for Continental abstractions like "the Will of the People".

All that has been cast aside and you will now find Conservatives condemning parliamentary scrutiny of the executive and the independence of the judiciary - the very things they are meant to believe in - because they threaten the unopposed implementation of the Europe referendum's decision,

We know that Ukip doesn't like anything about Britain except its past. Now the Conservatives are going the same way.

No, I am not a new convert to Mrs Thatchers' view: I wrote a post entitled Scribbling on the constitution: A referendum on Europe was always a bad idea as long ago as June, when everyone expected Remain to win.

And back in 2011 I wrote an article for Liberal Democrat News saying the party should stop calling for referendums on Europe, in part because of their damaging effect on British politics:
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?
They should have listened to me and Maggie.


Frank Little said...

There was nothing wrong with holding a referendum on the EU in 2010 after the new government took office, provided that it was made clear that it would only be advisory (though if there was a huge majority in favour of coming out, the government would take note). The Labour leader at the time was in favour of remaining in and could hardly have used the referendum as a protest against Nick Clegg, as he did with the AV vote.

The big mistake was to appear to go back on our 2010 manifesto commitment (and that of the Conservatives), encouraging a "them and us" feeling in the country which built up over the following six years.

Disgruntled Radical said...

Completely agree with your lordship. I have been wondering what those two arch-opponents of the EU, Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, would have made of the court's judgment. Both were great parliamentarians and Benn denounced the royal prerogative as often as he denounced the EU. I hope I am right in thinking they would have understood, accepted and supported the court.

Herbert Eppel said...

For the record, when the Green Party came out with enthusiastic support for the EU referendum idea back in January 2013, I wrote this email to Caroline Lucas:

"I'm afraid that, after the AV referendum debacle, which leaves no hope of achieving PR in our lifetime, I'm not sure at all about a referendum on EU membership.
The consequences of Britain leaving the EU are unthinkable, and I'm afraid I don't have confidence in British voters making the right decision. An EU referendum shouldn't even be on the agenda!"