Why I hate referenda

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Hurrah for David Cameron! He has promised an In-Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union if he wins the next General Election.

Hurrah? Well, no. Not really. For one thing, Cameron has bad form on this. He famously made a “cast iron” pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in 2007 when he was Opposition leader back in 2007. Writing in the Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper, Cameron said:

“The final reason we must have a vote is trust. Gordon Brown talks about “new” politics.  But there’s nothing “new” about breaking your promises to the British public. It’s classic Labour. And it is the cancer that is eating away at trust in politics.  Small wonder that so many people don’t believe a word politicians ever say if they break their promises so casually.  If you really want to signal you’re a break from the past, Prime Minister, do the right thing – give the people the referendum you promised.

“Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations.  No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum.”

Of course, this time it was Cameron who eroded the public trust. As some of you may have noticed, Mr Cameron IS now PM and er…no referendum has ever happened. Cameron broke his promise. He may well do so again.

But perhaps this would be a good thing? Referenda are bad. And here’s why:

1.       They are never held for anything other than party political reasons.

Cameron knows it is not in our national interest to leave the EU. He is doing it for two reasons: to shore up his own support and to undermine the (exaggerated) threat presented by the UKIP lunatic fringe. It has worked but don’t think for a moment his motives on this are honourable. Likewise, the first national UK referendum which was held on Common Market membership in 1975 was intended purely to keep the Labour Party from splitting, while the 2010 one on electoral reform was held purely to keep the Lib Dem grouping in the Coalition happy.

2.       Nobody ever votes on the issues at stake.

Perhaps because we are more familiar with General Elections, voters nearly always end up voting for some party political reason. Last time, it was to piss off the unpopular Nick Clegg. In 1975, Britain voted overwhelmingly to stay in the Common Market (as it was then known) largely because a) the press were overwhelming pro-EC back then (yes, really!) b) because they were told it would be impossible for the UK to pull out anyway and c) to anger the unpopular anti-EC Labour Government. Margaret Thatcher, the new Tory leader, was then a keen supporter of the European ideal.

3.       Don’t we elect MPs to make decisions on our behalf?

If the Tories want to pull out, they should go into the next General Election saying so! Labour did this in 1983 (and subsequently suffered their biggest post-war defeat). Why bother having a referendum as well?

4.       No one knows when to call a referendum or not.

No one has a clue. There are no set rules on it. There have only ever been two national referenda in British history. Generally, they are usually called for when the public already clearly want the change which is being proposed. In which case, why not just pass the law anyway if it’s good? If there isn’t a clear majority supporting the motion (as in the case of electoral reform), everyone whinges and says it’s a waste of time and money.

Here is a list of developments since 1945, none of which the public had a direct vote on. Some of us might feel they would like to have had the chance to vote on a few of these things:

Joining the UN.

Joining NATO.

The end of National Service.

The onset of Commonwealth immigration.

The abolition of hanging.

The legalisation of abortion.

The legalisation of homosexuality.

The closure of grammar schools/introduction of comprehensive education.

The stationing of Cruise missiles in the UK.

The reduction in trade union power.

The Single European Act/Maastricht/Amsterdam/Maastricht etc.

The abolition of fox hunting.

The decision to invade Iraq.

5.       Not every issue is easily resolvable in a simple Yes/No debate.

6.       Referenda rarely satisfy anyone.

I may well take part in the referendum “Yes” campaign assuming it ever happens. I did the same for the last one on electoral reform (which ended in heavy defeat). This isn’t hypocrisy. There is little point arguing against a referendum which is already happening.

But the 2011 referendum was not a happy experience. I can accept that most people didn’t want electoral reform and never would: the margin of defeat was heavy. But the whole affair was highly unsatisfactory for either side. The victors hardly seemed hugely triumphant arguing that the whole exercise had been a pointless and expensive distraction. There were also lots of silly false rumours about expensive counting machines being needed if the Yes vote won (the reason why was never explained). The No team also enjoyed saying how expensive the changes would be, typically including the cost of the actual referendum in their calculations. The referendum, of course, was already happening and would cost the same regardless of the outcome.

The Scots/Welsh referenda on self government in the late Nineties were more justified although annoyed some English who wanted a say on the issue too. The EC vote in the Seventies left people dissatisfied too.

Both Clement Attlee (who I liked) and Lady Thatcher (who I didn’t) called referenda “the device of demagogues and dictators”. This is perhaps a bit strong in this case. But even if David Cameron is telling the truth this time, I’m not excited.

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