Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Referendum on Europe: the real distraction from the real issue.

I suspect that many of the Neanderthals calling for a referendum on our membership of the European Union are the same ones who claim that now is not the time to reform the House of Lords because the issue would distract parliament from serious and contemporary matters: ie the economy.

Just to deal with the Lords/Economy issue first, this excuse is a nonsense:
  • parliament is well able to do more than one thing at once
  • opponents will always argue that "now is not the right time" 
  • parliament already spends too much time on new laws, often formulated in haste and regretted at leisure (eg the Dangerous dogs Act)
  •  and new laws will not revive the economy: what will is Keynesian pump priming, which doesn't require new laws but political will.
Now to the Europe/Referendum issue. The case against referendums in representative democracies is clearly set out in most of the standard text-books.  Briefly

  • it is extremely difficult to select a fair and unbiased question.  This was particularly true in our recent referendum on electoral reform, where most of us in favour felt that we were campaigning for a second-rate system (AV rather than PR by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies).  Similar difficulties arise with the proposed referendum on Scottish independence (should "home rule" be included as a second option?), and those who dislike the result of the 1975 referendum on Europe now claim that they didn't understand for what they were voting.
  • it is difficult to achieve a fair and balanced debate.  The pro-Europe case in 1975 was supported by all three main political parties and very generously funded by the European Community. Tony Benn and his cohorts were heavily out-gunned. It is also difficult to deal with lies and distortions.  These were blatant, and admitted to after the campaign, from the anti-side in the electoral reform referendum.  The anti-reformers also had a more skilled campaign, better literature and, I suspect, much more money.  The anti-Europeans would probably say much the same about 1975.
  • the government that calls a referendum usually does so, not because it wants the peoples' answer, but to get itself out of some political difficulty.  This was certainly true in referendum on continued membership of the EEC in 1975, when Harold Wilson was faced not only with a split party but also a split cabinet.  Today David Cameron real aim  is to provide some "red meat" for his Euro-phobes in order to persuade them to continue to support the coalition, and to give comfort to those of his MPs who feel their majorities may be nibbled away by UKIP.
  • referendums do not provide answers "once and for all."  Those who lose continue to nag for another.
  • and finally, just to bang the chauvinistic drum for a change, referendums are simply not British, as the great Clement Atlee asserted, but devices used by by demonic (continental!) leaders to create a myth that they have a personal relationship with "their" people (to paraphrase slightly Professor Black of Exeter University.)

Unfortunately the crisis of the Euro  has given George Osborne a popular and convenient scapegoat to which he can ascribe  the failure of his economic policy.  This is, of course, nonsense: his misguided  policy of cuts and public austerity was failing and doomed to failure long before the difficulties with the Euro (caused by the same"light regulation" and over-confidence in the banking system which caused the crash) emerged.  His policy also relies on export led growth.  As in the 1930s, this is unlikely to succeed when all other countries are in depression and also trying to "export their unemployment", But to cut ourselves off from the market which takes more than half our exports would make his policy even less likely to succeed.


  1. Depending on the timing, how might this referendum, designed to get Cameron off a hook of his own making, sit with the referendum on scottish independence? If as postulated he might hold it to coincide with the 2015 General Election, then should Scotland have voted yes to independence will scots have a vote? In the alternative, supposing a no vote north, and bearing in mind that in general there is not the rabid, foaming mouthed europhobia in scottish politics, would a negative vote on Europe in the UK as a whole re-open nationalist grievances?

  2. As you say, the timing is vital. Were the Europe referendum to be held before the Scottish referendum, and then the Scots were to vote for full independence, that would really put the cat among the pigeons.

  3. I feel both should be put to a referendum. Referenda have many disadvantages and you are not wide of the mark with what you say. In most cases we have a representative democracy because we vest our collective power, the power of the people, into Her Majesty's Government for them to act on our behalf.

    But when the very question of the investiture of those powers itself is called for, I believe every voter has the right to decide whether they want to move the balance of power towards an elected senate, or towards European entities. It represents a change to how our collective will is dispensed, and for this reason (and this alone) a referendum is appropriate.

    Otherwise, reductum ad absurdio, any democratically-elected government could inside the duration of its parliamentary term transfer all future democratic rights to China, abolish itself, change the franchise to include just people in Google, establish a dictatorship... etc. It simply must follow that if the settlement of our collective will and its use changes, we must collectively agree to this.