"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Monday, October 24, 2011

Two problems with plebiscites

Democracy is like liberty, choice, accountability, tolerance and justice; these are Good Things that one should be seen to support, lest your credentials for membership of polite liberal-democratic society be called into question. It is because this is well-understood that hucksters of all political persuasions have learned the rhetorical trick of identifying their desired policy outcome with one or more of the above sanctifying concepts.

The ease with which they are able to do this is something I find frankly terrifying. It doesn't seem to matter how ill-conceived, narrow or vainglorious the project is, declaring it to be about 'freedom', 'choice', the 'will of the people' is astonishingly effective. Which brings us to the topical subject of referendums. The Tory rebels want one - and the SNP want one. While obviously different in a couple of respects, they are both about 'constitutional' issues and both groups of protagonists feel the sense of having the wind at their backs. Because referendums are 'democratic' means by which the 'people' express their 'view'. You disagree with this? At best you're an 'elitist' - but in reality probably something much worse.

There's obviously more than two problems with this nonsense but I haven't written anything for a while and don't want to make assumptions about your attention - so I'll restrict myself to two:

1) Are we allowed to say short-termism is a problem inherent in democracy? Because I wonder how many people who like to quote Churchill's maxim that, "Democracy is the worst system, except for all the rest", actually accept its implication that democracy does in fact have one or two problems. I'd have thought this is obviously one of them - and it is a problem magnified to frankly grotesque proportions with plebiscites.

It is received wisdom that referendums are appropriate for 'constitutional' questions but these are precisely the kinds of questions they are least appropriate for because they involve decisions concerning the membership of institutions which, if they are designed properly, will endure for generations. That this shouldn't be so - that it is the proper function of politics to revisit these questions of membership every generation in a plebiscite - represents nothing less than proposing the institutionalisation of crass egoism, as well as an appalling lack of any sense of history.

And understood like this, aren't referendums a waste of time by their proponents own definition? If the 70s referendum on EEC membership isn't binding now, why shouldn't people apply the same ephemeral criterion to any plebiscite-based decision to withdraw from the EU now?

2) But this is to concede too much to the notion that there's some kind of consistent principle being applied here - in the name of the 'people', naturally. Fact of the matter is, referendums are a mechanism by which party politics takes perhaps its most dishonest form.

I've said it before but it bears repeating: the only time governments and opposition parties call for referendums is when they think they'll yield the result they want. If they don't think this, they avoid them.

Occasionally circumstances - those consisting of internal irreconcilable differences - impose it on them, as was the case with the one on membership of the EEC. But the general pattern is clear - and should a miscalculation occur, regimes usually draw a little inspiration from the legend of Bruce and the spider: if at first you don't succeed...

It's this dishonesty at the very heart of all known referendum projects that really sticks in the throat. It is, I would argue, substantially more mendacious than the more mundane 'bundle' voting discussed by Chris Dillow. Why has the SNP - despite their thumping majority in Holyrood - not set a date for a referendum on Scottish independence? Because they don't think they'll win. They are right to think this, in my view.

They are also right to think that no matter how unpalatable the status quo might be, it would still win in a straight fight against a nationalism that proposed a new head of state, border control, currency and armed forces - hence the multi-option proposal. I don't mind the Catalonia model being the nationalists' preferred option but do we really have to endure all this bluster and posturing merely for it to remain the already badly-kept secret that it is?

These preposterous parties, presidents and politicians of all persuasions with their populist posturing pretending with their propaganda to be at one with the populace through their professed preference for plebiscites? Pretentious pish - of a much more sinister kind than that demonstrated in the last sentence...
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