With speculation bubbling about the impending EU referendum, you have to wonder how enthusiastic the politicians and the public are for a debate on Europe, especially since there is no shortage of other issues that could take up our time instead – the sluggish economy being just one. Although I don’t think any political issue should ever be classed as ‘off-limits’, those who believe that a referendum on Europe is both a trick and waste of time may just have a point.
Referendums, whatever ugly guise they may take, are fundamentally undemocratic. The mainstream media is almost always heavily biased against one side; the coverage mirroring the often lopsided nature of the referendum question itself. A ‘Yes’ vote is always easier to fight for due to the positively charged nature of the word, while No campaigners invariably face criticism that they are being far too negative or critical. Well, duh, as the say. Besides, governments only hold referendums if they think there is a viable chance of winning. If they lose they may be mature enough to back down, but it’s more likely they’ll try to run the vote again. This gives us what Josh Freed dubbed the ‘neverendum’ – see Quebec, Ireland etc. Then there are the referendums held for purely political reasons.
Few people actually remember that David Cameron first promised a vote on the EU back in 2009. He reiterated that promise in 2013 in an attempt to stem the rise of UKIP, never really expecting he’d have to keep it. In some way this is all reminiscent of the first vote on the EU back in 1975, which was only held because pipe-smoking Prime Minister Harold Wilson, then in his second term and hoping for an easy retirement, wanted to silence the alarmingly large number of people in his own cabinet that disagreed with him – this being in the days when anti-EU sentiment was the property of the left, not of the right, as it is today.
Wilson got his Yes vote, and left Downing Street before things got too hairy, but his party’s continuing ambivalence towards Europe nearly brought it to its knees, after it fell from power in 1979. What happened to Labour then reminds us of the very salient fact that referendums almost never settle the issues they are supposed to address (leading us to ask: what are they for?). Take the two most recent plebiscites held in this country:
1. The AV referendum on the 5th of May 2011. Although we overwhelmingly rejected the Alternative Vote, there remains a sizeable and very persistent minority of people who continue to campaign against what they see as an unfair voting system. We could consider this as an example of what John Stuart Mill called ‘the tyranny of the majority’, but not even a majority of people actually bothered to register their opinion. Only 42 per cent voted, and as it was held on the same day as local elections, many saw it as an opportunity to send a message to the hated Nick Clegg instead of taking a step to reform the country. In other words, it was a failure all round.
2. The Scottish independence referendum of the 18th of September 2014. Like the AV vote, the pressing issue of Scotland’s future became entangled with day-to-day political feeling. Many on the pro-independence side, knowing their own arguments were sketchy, tried to frame separation from the UK as a way of getting rid of an unpopular Coalition government. This, as many correctly pointed out, is what we have elections for. Besides, the concept of Scottish independence is such a complex and multi-faceted issue that it was probably unhealthy to attempt to squeeze everything into a simple ‘yay or nae’ question. This is why we now find ourselves in the absurd position where Scotland’s relationship with the UK is less certain than it was before the vote. Another referendum, so we’re told, could be just around the corner.
So where does it end? In Sweden they even had a vote on which side of the road to drive on, which is just ridiculous. I’m not sorry we don’t live in a country such as Switzerland, where the governments are so weak and the leaders so ineffectual that they have to resort to a heavy diet of multiple referendums a year in order to get anywhere with governing the country. A party that is genuinely passionate about a particular policy – such as rejuvenating the voting system, for instance – should seek to implement its proposals if it finds itself in a position of power. It should do away with the meek alternative of asking the public for approval, and instead face judgement for its decisions on election days – as all parties must do anyway. The concept of a direct democracy, where the long-suffering public is constantly pestered on even the most minor issues, is greatly overrated for this very reason.
However, I concede that there are some cases where consulting the public on specific issues may be necessary, but referendums should still be held as infrequently as possible. Clement Attlee, the post-war Prime Minister many on the left love to covet, famously dismissed them as being ‘devices for despots and dictators’. A bit extreme perhaps, but he had a point. If we are to have a vote on our place in the EU, can we at least frame the question so the options are ‘In’ and ‘Out’ and not ‘Yes’ and ‘No’? That way we can avoid the tiresome accusations that those opposing the motion are somehow too negative or critical, which would be a small consolation. There is nothing wrong with being sceptical in life, especially where referendums are concerned.