Saturday, March 08, 2008

A referendum?

My boss reminded me the other day of a remark of Winston Churchill that the best argument against democracy was "a five minute conversation with the average voter". The comment is apposite apropos the argument about whether there should be a referendum on the European Reform Treaty. Let's be honest: are voters really competent to judge its pros and cons? I feel the same about membership of the single currency. In my gut I favour it, but its a complicated question, there are pros and cons, I'm not an economist, and I'm not really sure I'm competent to judge. If there was a referendum on the Treaty would voters really be voting on the Treaty? Or would they use the occasion to pass judgement on Gordon Brown? Or would Sun-driven Europhobia determine the outcome? Here's the truth: None of the parties really want a referendum. The Tories - or the sensible ones not the nutters - want the government to put the Treaty through Parliament without a referendum because they know the EU needs it, and they get the best of both worlds because they can bleat about there not havng been a referendum. If elected after the Treaty has gone through they will not revisit it. Labour don't want a referendum and neither do the Lib-Dems (and I suspect this is true also of the Lib-Dem rebels!) because they are afraid of a "No" vote. Putting it through Parliament is the right way to do it: the UK is a parliamentary not a plebiscitary democracy. And anyway democracy can easily be fetishised: it is a system of government which allows voters every now and then to get rid of a really unpopular government. Other than that (and that of course is very important) ordinary voters do not really have any more control over decision-making than in Putin's-Russia (as it still is). We have lots of liberal freedoms, thank God. But that's not the same thing. The Eurosceptics are in a way right, the European project has from the start been elite-driven and has progressed by stealth; but I kind of think that European unity is a "good thing", and that it couldn't have been done any other way.


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