By John Knox
Posters for the Irish constitutional referendum, October 2009 Picture: infomatique
Like sparkling wine, referendums are good at first taste but the more you drink, and the more you contemplate them, the less satisfying they become.
Take Monday’s vote in the House of Commons, for instance. The 81 Tory MPs who wanted to hold a referendum on the European Union were attracted by the sparkle of freedom from European regulations and from the expense and bother of belonging to a wider union. But did they really want people to vote for withdrawal?
Or were they hoping the people would vote for a renegotiation of our EU membership? If so, how on earth would that be achieved? The other 26 countries would never allow it. And if they wanted a looser union, how would that be negotiated? How would it work?
In any case, could these troublesome Tories please give us an example of which EU regulations they want to abolish? The working time directive, perhaps? So do they want lorry drivers to sit behind the wheel until they fall asleep? Or do they want junior doctors to treat patients at the end of a 100-hour week?
The point of EU regulations is to create a fair market and to force up standards across the continent – standards of manufacture, construction, working conditions, safety, water quality, etc. Do these 81 Tories – and 30 others – think we should go back on all of this? And if they think the Spaniards or the Greeks or the French are cheating on the regulations, do they suppose we can stop them by abolishing the regulations?
Questions, questions, questions… this is what happens if you hold a referendum. We are seeing this here in Scotland with the SNP’s proposed referendum. What exactly is meant by “independence”? Will there be a second question on “devolution max”, and what exactly does that mean?
It is right, of course, that all these questions should be asked. But is a referendum the best way of asking them, let alone answering them? Can most people be bothered with such political detail?
That is why, most of the time, we settle for “representative democracy” in which we elect a party of people we generally agree with or respect, and they look into such details for us while we get on with the rest of our lives. Of course, MPs and parties should take into account our views – but, as one of the founding fathers of British democracy, Edmund Burke, famously said in a letter to his constituents in Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
In Britain we don’t hold much with referendums. We have only held two across the UK. One was in 1975 when we approved our membership of the European Community (two years after we had already joined, and there are many who still do not accept the result). The other was last year when we voted against the Alternative Vote, a system which no one really wanted and which would have had little effect.
In Scotland, of course, we held a referendum on setting up the devolved parliament. And that brought its own difficulties. The question had to be asked twice (in 1979 and again in 1997) and it looks as if we might be asked to vote again on taxation powers, powers we already approved in the 1997 referendum.
It is true that other countries appear to be happier with referendums. In Switzerland, they hold them three or four times a year and the answer is usually No. In Norway, they have had six referendums and still there are those who want another one on entry to the EU. In New Zealand, they have held ten, plus a series specially devoted to alcohol – again that sparking wine analogy comes to mind.
In Quebec, they still have not resolved the separation question, despite it being asked twice, in 1980 and again in 1995. In Iceland last year, the people voted in a referendum not to pay their debts. If everyone did that, the world would be a sorry place.
In Germany, they don’t talk about referendums after what the Nazis used them for. In France they use them sparingly, after De Gaulle used them too much. In 2005, though, the French ended the prospect of a European constitution with a decisive “Non”.
But in dear old Ireland, they are forever holding referendums, 30 so far. And they are usually on the same two subjects: abortion and the EU. The government just keeps asking the same question until it gets the “Yes” answer it wants.
So, all in all, referendums have not proved to be the great asset to democracy, or good government or sensible decision-making we might like them to be. They appear to be most useful when a big constitutional change needs legitimacy – the overwhelming and settled approval of the people.
The sad fact is that we are fickle citizens: one moment we want one thing, the next something else, depending who was last talking to us. Electing a parliament is a more permanent measure of our true opinions. Just as sparkling wine is fun for special occasions – and a typical drink of choice for Tory MPs – referendums should be used sparingly in a sober society, and only when the answer is going to be an overwhelming Yes.
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