Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Against referenda (again)

Sorry for repeating myself but one of the annoying arguments used against those of us that are at best sceptical about the use of plebiscites is that we 'don't trust the people'. I've argued that it is governments we don't trust - and there's been two recent stories that illustrate the point that politicians only favour referenda when they think they'll get the answer they want.

Alex Salmond wants to have a referendum on Scottish independence but not yet - because he doesn't think it'll yield the result he wants. The 'tectonic plates' have shifted in Scottish politics, he claims, but not quite enough so meanwhile we've to have lots of state-sponsored propaganda a 'national debate' first.

The unionist parties, on the other hand, are opposed to a referendum because while they suspect Salmond is right to think he would lose a referendum, they can't be that confident.

Meanwhile in London, Gordon Brown - while he feels obliged to give little hints that he might - doesn't really want a referendum on the new EU treaty because he thinks he'll lose. The Tories agree - which is why they support one.

What's annoying about all this for me is that journalists never seem to ask more basic questions. Instead of asking politicians if they favour a referendum in this or that issue, why don't they ask them about their attitude to referenda in general? Do they favour them at all, and if so under what circumstances? What kind of issues should be submitted to plebiscites and, importantly, who should generate them? For example, if we are to have them at all, why is it only the prerogative of the executive to call them? Why not Parliament? Or why not the people? You could have a referendum asking the people if they favoured being consulted by referenda on a regular basis. Bit silly, maybe. Or maybe not - but no politician would ever advocate this because the answer would, of course, be yes.

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