This post has just appeared on the Sharpener.
Before I raise the blood-pressure of at least one of my fellow Sharpener writers, let me be clear at the start. I am in favour of the new EU constitution, albeit in a somewhat guarded fashion. My vote on it will almost certainly be a yes.
What I object to is more fundamental - I simply hate referendums. They are a blot on the electoral landscape, they provide craven politicians with an excuse to abdicate responsibility and they undermine the very nature of representative democracy. They should simply never happen.
Many commentators have bemoaned the Labour party’s perceived mangling of the British constitution. They have claimed that devolution is dismantling the kingdom, that Lords reform has resulted in a half-way house that pleases nobody, and that the abolition of the post of Lord Chancellor has shown the incompetence of the whole enterprise. Arguments can be made for all these statements. But for me, the most damning legacy that Labour has left on our way of government, and one of the least mentioned, is its headlong dash to hold referendums whenever the going gets tough.
Let me explain.
Some historical stuff
Until the inglorious year of 1975, Britain had somehow managed to muddle through for centuries on end without holding a single referendum. Imagine that. We had abolished slavery, allowed Catholics to be MPs, given women the vote, defeated Hitler, become a member of NATO, awarded the Beatles all OBEs and even joined the then European Community. All without the need for ‘putting the issue before the British people’.
What happened in 1975? Did our enlightened rulers suddenly realise that we needed to be more engaged in the political process, be enthused with our direct influence on the fate of our nation?
Er, no. Harold Wilson was having a little local difficulty with members of his own front bench. So, for reasons that were all to do with political expediency, and nothing at all to do with the rights of the British people to have a say, we had our first referendum. Our first tentative step onto the slippery slope.
Fast forward to 1979. Again, a Labour prime minister was having trouble with members of his own party, this time on devolution legislation. His majority was so slim that the government could have fallen. The solution? Let’s hold some referendums. 100% expediency, 0% principle.
I hardly need go on. Tony Blair understood the tactical brilliance of holding referendums to avoid the need for difficult political debate. So, referendums were promised on all manner of subjects from, once again, devolution, to whether the UK would join the Euro.
And then, with his second term in trouble, he became increasingly nervous about having to face the electorate at an election promising to ratify the EU constitution. He knew the Tories would make hay. The debate must be shut down. Enter that old stalwart of Labour prime ministers in difficulty – the referendum. He’s off the hook again. But don’t for one minute try to persuade me that this was anything other than the grubbiest form of expediency.
No, and no again
Of course, the fact that referendums in Britain have without exception been held for the convenience of politicians, rather than out of any elevated feeling of principle, is not necessarily a reason for condemning them out of hand. But it should put us seriously on our guard.
And the problems with referendums run very deep indeed. Let me start with a hypothetical example.
Take the EU constitution referendum due in the next year or so (the French permitting). Say I am a rampant Europhile. That my aspiration is to have a EU superstate, where all European peoples live under one set of laws in happy harmony.
I take a look at the constitution. What do I find? A document that, in my eyes, kowtows excessively to the nation states, retains unanimity on far too many subjects and is an enormous barrier in the way of my vision of a future Europe. Clearly I cannot support such a document. So I vote no. The day of the referendum comes, and imagine my joy as my side, the ‘no’ side, wins. Tomorrow, my government will clearly follow my views, the views of the majority of my countrymen, and seek to renegotiate the constitution to further my dream of closer integration.
You can see which way this is going. In the perverse way of referendums, my ‘no’ vote is interpreted to mean the exact opposite of what it in fact signifies.
Referendums cannot replace proper parliamentary debate, where each detail can be considered, amendments tabled, arguments thrashed out. Indeed, referendums can only serve to undermine, distort and weaken such debate.
Ah, referendophiles may retort, some subjects are too important for mere parliamentary approval. The voice of the people must be heard. To which my response is - arrant nonsense. The more important the subject, the more important it is that it should be approved by parliament. These are our representatives, whose full time job it is, or is supposed to be, to consider complex issues, debate them, and come to a conclusion on our behalf. That they should turn this responsibility over to the population at large because the issue is particularly important is to turn the whole thing on its head. Parliament’s very reason for existence is to take difficult and important decisions. If you don’t believe it is able to do this, you might as well tear up our democratic system altogether and start again.
And where does this logic take us? Modern technology is now advanced enough as to enable the population to take ever more of these ‘difficult’ decisions. Why not have every member of the public type in the level of income tax they think appropriate into a key pad fitted in each household. The average number would then become the level of income tax for the following year. What fun. The same could be done for interest rates, VAT, council tax. We don’t want to let politicians get their hands on these ‘important’ and ‘difficult’ decisions that affect all our lives, now do we? If the result was income tax of 2%, interest rates at 65% and council tax of tuppence a household, well so be it, as it would be at the behest of the people.
And what about criminal trials? Surely some trials (say Shipman or Soham) are too important for the national interest for a mere 12 anonymous jurors to decide their outcome. The entire population should be given the right to text in their verdict. The court proceedings could be put on some 24-hour channel, and everyone would be given the right to vote. It might be difficult to get an unanimous verdict, but surely we ‘trust the people’, don’t we?
Declaring war, appointing judges, siting nuclear power stations, deciding carbon gas emissions. The list is endless. Why not put all these things ‘to the people’?
You might say that I’m being naïve about parliamentary responsibility. That in fact debates in parliament are nothing but a sham. Perhaps you would be right. But one doesn’t correct a problem by turning to a method the effect of which is to make that problem worse.
Referendums are not midwives for a new golden age of public accountability, rather they are the undertakers of a democratic system that is losing confidence in its own ability to govern.