Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A referendum is a crude and dangerous way of taking key political decisions

A Referendum is a pretty crude democratic tool, and a very dangerous one. This is for two main reasons, timing and political expediency. The more complex an issue the more inappropriate a referendum is as a means of taking a decision.   Although in the end Scotland voted “No” fairly decisively to independence it was quite a close run thing. The last minute panic from the three main parties was a response to the fact that the gap in the polls was narrowing – and that some even had the “Yes” campaign in the lead. Although over time there was volatility it was in the last six months that the gap really narrowed. Was this because the case for independence was strengthened by the quality of the argument? Hardly. On key matters, such as the currency choice and pensions, Alex Salmond and the SNP lost the argument. But clever politician that he is he realised that the way to boost his flagging campaign was to tap into the British discontent with traditional politics – the thing that has given UKIP its rise in parts of England. He also knew that the Scots have traditionally been left-of-centre in their politics and seeing that Labour was in some disarray he moved the SNP to the Left as well as exploiting the anti-Westminster mood. This was cleverly tactical, and it worked. Helped of course by the fact that there was a deeply unpopular Centre-Right Government in Westminster.

If ever an issue is strategic it is Scottish independence. The Scots were choosing how they were to be governed not for the duration of a Parliament but in perpetuity. It doesn’t get much more important than that! And yet they came close to choosing to break up the United Kingdom because, in part, they don’t like David Cameron very much and aren’t over-impressed by the Labour alternative either! This is the question of timing. The case for or against Scottish independence would be the same whether there was a Centre-Right or a Centre-Left UK Government at any one time. But the “Yes” campaign shrewdly realised that with power currently in the hands of the Centre-Right the trick was to turn the referendum partly into one on the Coalition’s performance.

The crudeness of the referendum option for making choices on major matters is self-evident. The politically smart can expediently use the issues and concerns of the moment to sway a vote whether or not these issues are directly relevant or even entirely understood by the voters. The question of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, if it is to be settled by a referendum as the Conservatives propose, would be determined by the political mood of the time. So if in 2017 a Conservative Government was in power, but deeply unpopular and the Prime Minister recommended a “Stay in” vote in a referendum, it is quite likely that many voters would say “No” because of his unpopularity. The Scottish referendum shows us that this is a real possibility. Similarly the fixed timing could be influenced by very short term events. Say, for example, that the need to pay the EU an extra £1.7bn had been announced during a referendum campaign. This fairly technical and one-off matter could strongly influence the vote and skew the result. 

Scottish independence and the UK’s membership of the EU are momentous issues – they are also extremely complicated and complex. They are also, for some people, highly emotional – on both sides of the arguments. To reduce the matter to a straight Yes/No choice is highly problematic, not least because it eliminates the “in-between” options. “Devo-Max” in Scotland or the choice of a somewhat looser (or tighter) relationship with our EU partners are perfectly viable alternatives. It doesn’t have to be the nuclear “In/Out” option in either case. This brings us to the “Parliamentary Government” factor. Around 99% of our laws are decided directly in our Parliaments, Assemblies and Courts or those (like the EU parliament, or the European Court of Human Rights) of which we are part. That is the traditional democratic model. It requires that we as citizens elect people whose job it is to take decisions for us. The Party system complements this and although three-line whips can sometimes require MPs to vote against their consciences that is part of the pragmatic necessity to have some way that Government policy can be applied without having to worry about whether a majority can be commanded on every issue. So on the issue of our relationship within the EU (or potentially outside it) we should trust Parliament to act for us. This would provide for debate by our representatives in the House of Commons and for a nuancing of decision-making that would be impossible if everything was reduced to the adversarial Yes/No question.  

The “Let the people decide” call is one of the most dangerous aphorisms of our times, or any times for that matter! One does not struggle to find dozens of examples of legislation that was (for example) socially progressive but might not have commended support if they had been put to the people in a referendum. It is also dangerous, as opinion polls regularly show, because one serendipitous event can temporarily skew opinions. Let there be proper discussions with our fellow EU members on the future of the Union and Britain’s place in it. “Opt outs” have been negotiated before for the UK and they could be again. But we won’t achieve anything by holding the crude “referendum” gun at the EU head – indeed that would be counter-productive. There is no reason to distort our normal model of Parliamentary Democracy on this matter – or any other in my opinion.






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