Saturday, 2 July 2016

Why I hate referenda

By and large I do trust politicians,  By and large, they do well the job we send them to do - they work long hours, take their job very seriously, research issues, use their judgement and help ordinary people solve problems.  But, over and above that they are the representatives we vote into the legislature.  Parliamentary democracy lies at the heart of Britain's unwritten constitution, and referenda cut across and undermine the role of MP's in the commons.   Referenda are a favourite tool of dictators and demagogues - they reduce complex issues to simple 'in-out', 'yes-no' type questions, they foster extremism and they undermine the rights of minorities.   As Attlee said: I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum.  

All of these criticisms of referenda have been more than borne out by our most recent example.  Like Wilson's 1975 EC referendum this one was proposed to try and gain party advantage.   The questions were so simple to be meaningless:  Remain or Leave.   One can assume that Remain meant to retain membership of the EU under the February agreement with the Council of Ministers and that was formally notified to the UN.  But Gove threw doubt on the validity of that agreement creating confusion as to what 'Remain' might imply.  Leave was even more ambiguous:  we could have passed an Act of Parliament that made UK law supreme in all matters to do with the EU - that would be a form of 'leave', we could accede from the Union but remain in the Single Market with all that implies - that would be 'leave'.  The permutations are innumerable.  

We are now assured by many on the 'leave' side that accession from the EU but remaining in the Single Market with freedom of movement and contributing to the EU would not be acceptable.  Where did that come from?  Where was that position on the ballot paper?   I have been assured on these fora that 'leave means leave' so often that I have given up complaining about the logical nonsense of such a comment.   But when asked ' what does 'leave' mean' we discover that there is no answer and if there is no answer there is no meaningful question.   The referendum was an unmitigated disaster not because it gave the wrong answer  but because it gave no answer.

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