Thursday, June 09, 2016

Plebiscites: poisoning the well of democracy

This referendum is the worst thing in British politics since, well, the last one.  Favouring Remain as I do, I am as dismayed as anyone else at the sort of lines we are being fed.  Today, for example, a Brexit leaflet posted through my letter box gave a short geography lesson pointing out both the population of Turkey and (lifting a sledge-hammer to reinforce the message) the fact that they share a border with Syria and Iraq.  As someone else remarked in a different context, this doesn't count as dog whistle politics - because you can't hear a dog whistle.

That this is pretty appalling demagogy is a view shared by a great many people, in my experience - but rather fewer have been making the point that such as this is an inevitable result of our recent indulgence of plebiscitary democracy.  Here if I could use Paul Evans' post from a few years ago to as a base point and elaborate one point he sort of mentioned and introduce another that he didn't.

The view I know Paul shares with me is that referendums present the electorate with a binary choice - it's all or nothing, you're either with us or you're against us.  But in reality, these choices do no justice to the actual situation.  This was the case both in the independence referendum of 2014 and in this forthcoming EU plebiscite.  In Scotland, the fact of the matter was - and is - that Yes Scotland and the SNP were arguing not for independence but, what with the desire to retain a common border and the frankly belligerent and childish insistence that London continue to run Scotland's monetary policy, for the continuation of the UK in a different, diluted form.  'Independence in the UK', if you like.  And among those of us on the 'No' side, only a few eccentrics seriously imagined that the devolution settlement of 1999 was something that could be dismantled.

The same is true of the EU.  One of the lines from the Leave side that I am getting a little tired of is the suggestion that those of us who think there would be serious economic consequences from a Brexit are the same as those who warned of the deleterious effects of not joining the single currency.  It is true that some took this view but not all of us did.  I didn't, as people who have known me a long time will testify - but a significant player who also happened to share my view was Her Majesty's government.  Can this really have escaped the attention of our zealous Brexiteers?  It was the position of the Conservative government under John Major - one that was maintained by Blair and Brown.  

But what strikes me as a more important defect with plebiscites that Paul doesn't mention is they simply don't work.  They are sold to us as a mechanism for settling an issue 'once and for all'.  The supposedly decisive and permanent nature of these plebiscitary exercises was used in Scotland to mobilise voters.  "Get out and vote!" we were told because it was a "once in a lifetime opportunity". How very short a lifetime turned out to be - and the aftermath of the European referendum is shaping up to be as dismal and petulant as it has been in Scotland.  The voter registration deadline has been extended in response to a technical problem.  This might be grounds for a legal challenge, we are told - although only if the result is unfavourable, naturally.  The same has been said if the Remain margin is not large enough.  It's all so predictable because the most obvious defect of referendums is that the people on the losing side don't accept the result - whether that be the Irish government, the Quebecois, the Scottish nationalists or the Brexiteers.  It is maybe too obvious a point to make but since this is self-evidently the case, what exactly is the point of having them?  There are many arguments about whether and to what extent plebiscites are a properly 'democratic' or 'deliberative' way of deciding matters, which perhaps distracts us from the nose-bleedingly obvious point: referendums don't even count as a way of deciding matters at all.  

It is this simple observable fact that makes me even more convinced than I was already that plebiscites are poisoning the well of our democracy.  What effect do we think all this is having - when they are presented as the very acme of democracy - yet it is more than occasionally the case that the people involved in them refuse point blank to accept the 'verdict of the people' that they have just spent an arduous and ill-tempered debate claiming to represent?  Plebiscites: absolutely don't do what they do on the tin - so after this one is done, let's not do them anymore.

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