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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Referenda or Neverenda??

Richard Dawkins is a name to conjure with – Professor of Evolutionary Biology, author of numerous books and a great sceptic….. He has just entered the debate on British membership of Europe by challenging the very idea of a referendum - 
My own answer to the question is, “How should I know? I don’t have a degree in economics. Or history. How dare you entrust such an important decision to ignoramuses like me?”
I, and most other people, don’t have the time or the experience to do our due diligence on the highly complex economic and social issues facing our country in, or out of, Europe. That’s why we vote for our Member of Parliament, who is paid a good salary to debate such matters on our behalf, and vote on them......... 
I am indeed a true democrat, but we live in a representative democracy not a plebiscite democracy. To call a referendum on any subject should be a decision not taken lightly...... But to call a referendum on a matter as important and fraught with complicated and intricate detail as EU membership was an act of monstrous irresponsibility: the desperate throw of a short-term chancer, running scared before the Ukip tendency within his own party. He may reap the whirlwind.

The 1975 Referendum broke new constitutional ground – it had never been used before….and was, in most people’s minds, associated with dodgy regimes…..Vernon Bogdanon (to whose analysis of the 1975 Referendum I referred yesterday) is Emeritus Professor of Government and author, amongst much else, of The New British ConstitutionThe grounds he gives for the support of such constitutional referenda do, therefore, deserve our attention. 
His analysis of the 1975 referendum gave two arguments – namely
all parties supported membership in the 1970s - but public opinion was divided. A significant section of society had therefore no voice…
the issue was so fundamental that the legitimacy of government was being threatened

But that’s not actually why or how the first ever British referendum came about……
In the 1970 Election, the Labour Party was defeated. Heath was returned to office. At the end of 1970, Tony Benn raised the possibility of the Labour Party committing itself to a referendum on joining Europe at Labour’s National Executive, but he could not find a seconder for the motion.
From 1971 onwards, the very complicated European Communities Bill made its way through Parliament, and in March 1972, a Conservative backbencher who was opposed to Europe, called Neil Martin, proposed an amendment calling for a referendum, and this meant the Shadow Cabinet had to decide what to do about it, and they decided to oppose this motion. 
But the very day after this happened, President Pompidou in France said he was going to have a referendum in France on whether the French people approved of British entry into Europe…and he was doing this for internal party political reasons, to weaken his opponents on the left, who were split on the issue. …. But there were going to be four new members of the European Community: Britain, Denmark, Ireland and Norway. In the end, Norway did not join. The other three countries were all having referendums. France was having a referendum on whether Britain should enter, but Britain was not. One cynic wrote to the newspapers that when Heath has spoken of full-hearted consent of Parliament and people, he meant full-hearted consent of the French Parliament and people…
After this, Labour’s National Executive voted narrowly in favour of the Benn proposal. Then, a couple of days later, pure coincidence, the Heath Government announced there was going to be a referendum, though they called it a plebiscite, in Northern Ireland, on the border, on whether people wished to remain in the United Kingdom or join the Irish Republic. At this point, the Labour Shadow Cabinet agreed to the referendum.
 So, it came about through a series of really unforeseen contingencies and vicissitudes, completely unplanned, this very fundamental change in the British system.
But there were, in my opinion, good arguments for it, and the first, I have already given, that the party system could not resolve the issue properly because all three parties were in favour of membership, so there was no way in which the democratic party machinery could work.
 But the second argument, I think, is even more important, that even if the party system had been working efficiently, there are some issues that are so fundamental that a decision by Parliament alone will not be accepted as legitimate. This point of view was put forward by the Labour Leader of the House of Commons, Edward Short, in March 1975. He said: “The issue continues to divide the country. The decision to go in has not been accepted. That is the essence of the case for having a referendum.”  

The referendum is one of several major constitutional changes which Bogdanon’s book assesses and which are superbly critiqued in this LRB reviewBut, Dawkins asks, is that a reason to abstain from voting? 
Certainly not. We are where we are, and there’s no use wishing we were somewhere else. I shall vote. And I shall vote to stay in Europe, exercising the Precautionary Principle which is appropriate to anyone lacking the confidence to push for a radical change in the status quo. Better the devil you know, or at least the devil that seems to be working adequately.
Moreover, as I listen to advocates from both sides I notice that, for all my lack of expertise, I am qualified to judge that most of the arguments for leaving are emotional. The evidence-based arguments tend to be the ones for remaining in Europe, whether they come from professional economists, historians, business leaders or powerful foreign politicians.

Comment;
1. Bogdanor’s presentation correctly reminds us that the 1975 referendum was supposed to settle the issue of Europe for ever - but that it was only a few years later that the Labour Party officially committed itself in the 1982 Manifesto to withdrawal…..and a few years after that that the Conservative Party started to tear itself apart on the issue. Somehow the issue never went away….hence the term which came into use during the Scottish debate on Independence “neverendum” – never-ending discussion….

2. Yesterday’s post emphasises the loss of trust there has been in the past decade in the political elite. But it more than that – it is a new lack of respect for arguments from people such as Dawkins and those whose opinion people like him respect….There is now a dangerous divide between professionals and the public

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