...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Day 3949: Does Europe Make Referendum-dums of Us All?


"The people haven't had a say on Europe since before I was born," declared one so-called rebel Conservatory.

Or indeed for the TEN THOUSAND years before that, you might remark. And yet still the continent has refused to go away.

Why not have a referendum on the MONARCHY? The people haven't been consulted about that since, oh, ever. And Mrs the Queen has a big-ish role in our constitution. Or why not a referendum on POLITICAL PARTIES?

For that matter, why not have a referendum on TIES? Are, in fact, bow ties cool after all? A nation must know!

Why does the government not want a referendum on Europe?

This is what the Liberal Democrats' manifesto SAID about a referendum:
The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.
This is what the Conservatories' manifesto SAID about a referendum:
We will ensure that by law no future government can hand over areas of power to the EU or join the Euro without a referendum of the British people.
and specifically:
We will amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that any proposed future treaty that transferred areas of power, or competences, would be subject to a referendum on that treaty – a 'referendum lock'.
And this is what the Coalition programme for government SAYS about a referendum:
The Government believes that Britain should play a leading role in an enlarged European Union, but that no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum.
and specifically:
We will amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that any proposed future treaty that transferred areas of power, or competences, would be subject to a referendum on that treaty – a 'referendum lock'.
which, obviously, and if you are a Conservatory backbencher claiming to be on a moral crusade you OUGHT to be paying attention to this, is a direct quote from the Conservatory manifesto.

So let's be COMPLETELY CLEAR: BOTH Parties ACCEPTED the status quo, and ONLY said there should be a referendum if there was to be a CHANGE.

Has there been a change? NO. So let's not hear any nonsense about "broken promises".

Those Conservatories getting up on their high horses about "moral duty": THEY are the ones breaking their manifesto!

However, as has been noticed, people do not do NUANCE. Not even nuance as BROAD BRUSH as "when there's a change".

So since both Parties IN the Coalition have at least given the APPEARANCE that they were vaguely, notionally in favour of the IDEA of a referendum, some people – by whom I mean "Conservatory right wingers who've been caught out by the need to keep a parliamentary seat in the musical chairs brought on by their own plan to reduce the number of constituencies by fifty" – have CYNICALLY and DECEITFULLY rebranded this as "we were promised a referendum" (add sounds of toys being thrown out of pram to taste).

This is a story that has legs because, unfortunately, governments have FORM on this: Hard Labour promised a referendum on the European Constitution… which then didn't happen so we didn't get a referendum. Mr Balloon gave a "cast iron guarantee" of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty… which was then passed anyway, 'cos it wasn't his to promise, so we didn't get a referendum… you see what it LOOKS like!

So why not just go ahead and have one?

Well, in the first place, there is no pressing NEED for a referendum now – beyond the "needs" of certain Conservatory backbenchers to, er, get their ballots off.

We NEEDED to do the AV referendum this year in order to decide what electoral system we were going to use in 2015 and have time to prepare for it. There is no such deadline looming over our relationship with Europe.

In fact, the reverse is true. Right now, we don't actually know what we'd be voting ON.

You cannot have failed to notice that there is a bit of a FLAP on to do with the Euro and the amount of borrowing by SOME Union countries.

Four countries, in particular, are a bit of a worry. Greece is the main one, because they are already over the edge and into freefall. Greece needs to be GIVEN money, not loaned money; they need their debt written off. Portugal is close to the edge. More worrying are Spain and Italy – they are more worrying because their economies and associated debts are larger and harder to wipe clean.

Not Ireland, though. Ireland, to whom Britain DID lend money, after their crisis last year appear – touch wood, wish for luck, pray to the nice blue lady – appear to be pulling out of their crash. So look, it's not impossible that these bailouts CAN WORK.

With all that going on, it is clear that the idea of "Europe" is very much in FLUX, which means CHANGING. We need to let things sort themselves out: either it will fall to bits with no help from us, or more likely just in the nick Germany and France will come up with a rescue package that will be just about acceptable to everyone.

What Europe doesn't need is Great Britain to start flapping on about in/out referenda when they need to be concentrating on fixing their economies. And, to appeal to self-interest too, WE need them to be concentrating on fixing their economies, because OUR economy is so bound up with theirs.

Mr Balloon talked about our neighbour's house being on fire and saying we should help. What he could have added as well was: what we SHOULDN'T do is rush round there flapping our arms shouting "look at me look at meeee!"

And it's not like we wouldn't like our own government to be concentrating on fixing our own economy.

The aim of the Coalition, first and foremost, has been to reduce the deficit. We also want a strategy to promote GROWTH. And it's increasingly clear – especially in prevailing economic World conditions – that the one is precluding the other.

Do we REALLY want the government to be committing a lot of its time and effort to negotiating an exit strategy from our treaty obligations and taxation agreements?

Or might that not be seen on both sides of the Channel as a MASSIVELY SELF-INDULGENT way to cause titanic damage to everyone's economies?

It's ALSO worth a remark that the people who are demanding a Europe referendum are many of the SAME people who spent last year WHINING that the AV referendum was an enormous waste of money at a time when we should be cutting back!

Time to update the dictionary definition of HYPOCRISY, I suspect.

Unfortunately it's all too easy to characterise these as excuses because we think we'd LOSE.

Obviously it doesn't help that I DO think we'd LOSE.

I don't think we would lose on the FACTS, but since when do FACTS come in to it?

We've just HAD a referendum on one bit of the constitution: the DEBACLE that was the voting reform referendum where people were clearly more swayed by a ruthless, reactionary, conservatory campaign than by the progressive hope for something better, even though almost everyone thinks that the existing system is utterly broken.

What on EARTH would make ANYONE think that a pro-Europe campaign would be any more successful than the shower who were in charge of the pro-AV?

And polling suggests that there is already a (small) majority in favour of LEAVING the EU; twice as many favour leaving as think they're happy staying in.

But the LAST thing that this country needs at the moment is to make 50% of our trade more difficult by leaving the single market.

People only hear about the COSTS of Europe without being told the benefits.

This is because, for years – no, for DECADES – cynical politicians have blamed Europe for anything that goes wrong and taken the credit themselves for anything that Europe puts right. And even-more-cynical newspapers have sold copies off the back of jingoistic little-Britain-ism while ensuring that they pay as little tax as possible IN Britain.

So-called "free trade" Americaland – so beloved of the very Europhobes who want us out of the Union – has EYE-WATERING barriers to entry, and Bush the Lesser actually INCREASED US Protectionism during his term, while on the other fluffy foot being in the Union grants us free access to a half-a-billion customers for our exports.

Explain to me where GROWTH is going to come from if we leave? Not so much cutting off our nose to spite our face as cutting off our BODY to spite our BRAINS!

Conservatories often bang on about the "small state". Well Europe is it! The whole EU is run on a tight budget (whatever UKIP may tell you), with a bureaucracy that is famously cheaper than the Scottish Office. And – post devolution – has more POINT.

Of COURSE there is a net transfer of money from Britain (and Germany!) to southern and eastern Europe. Just as there is a net transfer of money from London to EVERYWHERE ELSE in Great Britain.

There's a case to be made for France paying her fair share.

And a BLIND PERSON could see that the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy need reforming. But for all the inefficiencies and corruption, the CAP has contributed to the fact that we haven't had a famine in Europe in living memory. And the EU Fishing rules helps to PROTECT our fish stocks from Spanish trawlers in a way that we could not do outside of the EU without actually SINKING SHIPS and ending up at WAR.

We should judge things by whether they are a SUCCESS.

In contrast to the Euro – which is still very much in debate – I think that Europe and the Union have been a success.

Sixty-five years uninterrupted (Lord Blairimort aside) by war, famine or plague is unprecedented in European history. The rolling back of dictatorships in Iberia, Greece and Eastern Europe is a triumph of human spirit and freedom, and one that it is to be hoped might be a beacon to the newly-liberated countries of North Africa too. The affluence and well-being of hundreds of millions of people to a standard beyond anything dreamt of in the rest of the world or the rest of history is something to be treasured not tossed away.

It astonishes me… well no, it saddens me but I'm curiously un-astonished that Europe is now being scapegoated for our own economic crisis, even though European banks were better regulated than British ones (it's just a shame that some European GOVERNMENTS may have been as PROFLIGATE as British ones).

In hard economic times it's all too familiar to hear DOMESTIC woes being blamed on FOREIGNERS, the easy populist platitudes of why-do-we-have-to-pay-for and we'd-be-better-off-on-our-own rhetoric.

We were happy to be in the Union for the GOOD TIMES. Now times are hard all over and some people want to go all selfish and pull up the drawbridge.


Our position as a BRIDGE between Europe and the rest of the planet has always served us for GOOD. But nowadays, that position depends more on the CONCEPTUAL territory of treaties and agreements than it does on our island geography.

But let's look at the Euro.

I think that the Euro is a really good idea. That's think, present tense, not thought. A single currency improves transparency and reduces exchange risk promoting intra-Union trade, generating jobs and so on.

But clearly, there's a massive downside.

The Greeks' governments of many years standing have been spending money that they didn't have. Worse, money that they were NEVER GOING TO HAVE. And they were able to do this because they were issuing bonds in Euros, nice safe, reliable, German-backed, guaranteed or your money back Euros.

(Which, of course, is why leaving the Euro would be INSANE for Greece: their DEBT would STILL be denominated in Euros and would actually spiral UP as their own currency collapsed.)

(Sidebar: Great Britain, not in the Euro, can make OUR debts "cheaper" by devaluing our currency: if I give you an I.O.U. for one TRILLION pounds (*actual numbers!*) when the pound is worth two dollars, and I buy two trillion dollars' worth of, oh let's say sticky buns… mmmm, two trillion dollars' worth of sticky buns… I'm drifting… if I then devalue the pound so it's only worth ONE dollar… I only have to repay effectively one trillion dollars, even though I got two. The PRICE that I pay for this is INFLATION – all of my exports are now twice as expensive. Americaland (as a whole) STILL GET their two trillion dollars back – they just get it in different ways and it gets spread among different people.

Funnily enough, the HIGH inflation that we are experiencing AT THE MOMENT is caused not a little by the way that we devalued our currency through Quantum of Easing.)

Where was I? Oh yes…

It seems this flaw may be inherent to the Euro. And may be fatal. There is NO incentive for governments like the Greeks' – and on a bigger scale the Italians' – to control their borrowing and spending whereas there are MASSIVE incentives – or RIOTS as they are called – for them to carry on burning other people's money so long as Germany will back them at the baccarat table.

The only solutions to this appear to be: don't let irresponsible economies into the currency (too late!) or don't let governments in the currency decide independently on how much they will borrow and spend.

This, in a nutshell, is the deal that the Union are edging towards. Germany will pick up the tab for EVERYONE ELSE'S overspending and in return they will hand over control of their treasuries to Berlin.

The extremely serious questions that linger over this are (a) can Germany actually AFFORD to BUY the whole of the rest of Europe (sure, they did it with East Germany, but that was peanuts in comparison) and (b) in spite of what we are supposed to think of them, do they actually WANT to? Because, despite what the SHRILLER of our xenophobes may want you to think, the Germans are actually a remarkably easy-going bunch and taking control of sixteen recalcitrant economies might just be too much bother, even if it DIDN'T mean having to sit in a room listening to Mr Balloon blow hot air about "leadership" when he won't take ANY responsibility himself.

(seriously, the number of times Mr Balloon and Master Gideon have prated about the need for the Eurozone countries to work closer together while praising themselves for staying out of the Euro and NOT working together with the Eurozone countries, you start to think Monsieur Sarcastic, President of France, might have had a point when he told Mr Balloon to– [cue Blackadder theme])

Plus, the other countries involved might not really want to surrender their sovereignty to the Bundesbank.

(Sidebar 2: fiscal union really OUGHT to lead to political union, so that people have democratic oversight of the bodies controlling their cash. But it might not. Europe would be, in a way, recreating the situation as exists in Great Britain between Westminster and Holyrood/Cardiff. The Scottish Parliament is of course the HAPPIEST Parliament in the World, because it always gets to be SANTA CLAUS. Nasty Master Gideon in London raises all those HORRID taxes that people have to pay, but Kindly Uncle Alec™ is there to hand out bounty and largesse to all and sundry, and if he's not got enough money then it's all the fault of those thieving Tories to the South. All of the pleasure of power, none of the pain of paying for it. That might be an attractive model to e.g. the Greek government – oh, here you are, my friends, cash for all; oh, so sorry, we can't pay any more this month, the nasty German tax inspectors won't give us any more, etc.)

So where does this MANIA for referendums come from?

Parties – and the Liberal Democrats should put our fluffy feet up to this because we're as guilty of this as the other lot, if not more so – seem to call for referendums from Opposition quite a lot, because it's a way of making a populist point and by-passing lack of actual support in Parliament as much as a principle of democracy.

It's ALSO a way of side-lining policies that while central in importance to the Party membership are unpopular in the general public: "look, we know you hate this Europe stuff, so we'll give you this promise that we'll ask for a second separate mandate on that, so you can trust us with your vote on everything else!"

We all know that the ORIGINAL referendum on Europe was – ironically – a wheeze by the political pinball-wizard Mr Harold Wilson because – ironically – his Labour party was in government but split down the middle on the subject.

So he punted the whole business over to the public to avoid an EMBARRASSING parliamentary defeat.

How times change.

But why SHOULD people except to have a separate say on this subject, separate that is from the NORMAL run-of-the-mill say that people get in our REPRESENTATIVE Democracy, where for the last couple of decades they have expressed their total indifference on the subject by conspicuously not electing a single UKIP MP to Parliament.

Most people are not well informed on all the subjects that Parliament legislates on. That's why we elect REPRESENTATIVES so that they can be properly informed and look into the details for us.

And yet, and yet, and yet…

Does anyone REALLY believe that that is a true description of our Members of Parliament?

And don't we really think that the reason UKIP don't have any MPs is because the electoral system is horribly rigged in favour of mainly the two over-represented Parties with a slight side-order of massively underrepresented Liberal Democrats and no/virtually no representation for other Parties?

And when it comes down to it, aren't we supposed to TRUST the people whether they are well-informed or not, and who are we – Westminster bubble elite – to SAY that the people are well-informed or not?

It's all very funny to have a laugh at the wingnut fringe of the Conservatory Party wailing and gnashing its teeth and tearing themselves apart when finally given an excuse to vent their frustrations about Mr Balloon – because let's face it, this IS about Mr Balloon, and the fact that he made them bury all their Nasty Party tendencies and STILL didn't win them an election, and that they're convinced that (in spite of all the evidence of successive election defeats in 2001 and 2005) they could have taken an overall majority if only they'd been MORE RIGHT WING.

(If the pie-faced lummox wasn't such a self-satisfied nincompoop you could almost feel sorry for him. Almost. Thanks to the Coalition, he might actually have a chance of being a decent Prime Monster, but his Party will never forgive him for it. Though if he HADN'T formed the Coalition they'd have never forgiven him for that either! Sometimes, as Mr Balloon proved in the election, you just can't win. But then he did WANT the job!)

But what if the loonies are RIGHT?

Parliament, and by large majorities in ALL THREE BIG PARTIES (and technically in the Green one too), kind of just voted to tell the people to SOD OFF!

I REALLY don't see how this is going to make things better.

It LOOKS undemocratic. It LOOKS like MPs are conceding the case that a referendum would be unwinnable (which it probably is!). And it LOOKS like we’ll be getting wall-to-wall Nigel Farrago telling us that we are being denied our basic rights to shoot ourselves in both feet with a pitchfork. Or something.

Is it any wonder that politicians have lost the trust of the electorate aka THEIR BOSSES?

Here's a CURIOUS COINCIDENCE about the number SEVENTY-NINE: seventy nine is the number of Conservatory backbenchers who voted against Mr Balloon AND seventy-nine is the year to which one of their leading lightweights, Mr Jacob Rees-Moggadon, wants to turn the clock back. Specifically EIGHTEEN-seventy-nine – the year in which he was accidentally pickled in formaldehyde only to be revivified again in the twenty-first century.

So HOW, can anyone please tell me, has it come to pass that this unreconstructed antediluvian fogey is able to stand in the House of Commons and pass himself off as the authentic MAN-OF-THE-PEOPLE?

Good grief I feel awkward saying this because I think that the benefits of being IN Europe are almost immeasurable and the consequences of voting to leave unimaginably dire (and they wouldn't have us back in if we changed our minds after a year out in the cold) and yet I still think that we would lose a referendum. But I might be WRONG.

If we want to win trust back, we need to show a bit of trust ourselves first.

But why should it be up to the Frozen Fogey to decide when we turn the country upside-down?

Given that the outcome of the current Eurozone crisis will almost certainly require a FUNDAMENTAL rethink of the Union, and a MAJOR renegotiation of treaties – and the Prime Monster as good as said as much in his speech at the start of the referendum debate – would it not have been as wise – or at least, better POLITICS – to ACCEPT the motion IN PRINCIPLE but with the reasonable amendment that the promised referendum would take place ONLY once the Euro situation was resolved so that people knew what they were actually voting on.

Because (…and it's in the Coalition agreement, the Conservatory and Liberal Manifestos and the words of the front benches of all three main parties…) THAT'S WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN ANYWAY!

But in the longer term, I think we really need to WEAN ourselves OFF this habit of calling for one-off referendums.

I really do.

We are in favour of EMPOWERING people and referendums, while they're GREAT for Conservatories who want to wave their electoral willies about, and for governments that want to duck decisions or kick them into the long grass, are actually one of the WORST ways of making people empowered.

Look at the AV referendum: the turnout was pathetic. Look at the confusion that arose among people who wanted PR but not AV. They're votes are being CLAIMED by the anti-reform dinosaurs, where actually AV wasn't reform ENOUGH! How has the AV referendum properly represented the will of ANYONE? Apart from the reactionaries?

Referendums LOOK like huge exercises in democracy, but actually it's all a TRICK, an enormous game of FIND THE LADY. You know, pick a card, any card… from these TWO I am offering you…

The public do NOT get input into policy. At best, they get an EITHER/OR question (or in this case an EITHER/OR/OTHER question) over which of the ALREADY DECIDED policies will be implemented.

By their very nature, referendums are DIVIDE-AND-CONQUER. Rather than a synthesis of good ideas, they promote cynical attempts to crush opposing points of view. Explanation and understanding are side-lined in the exchange of soundbites, and if knowledge is power then that ACTIVELY REDUCES people's control over outcomes. They INFANTILISE the public, by saying that all they can cope with is a simple binary decision, when most people handle far more sophisticated decisions all the time.

These issues are TOO COMPLICATED to reduce to a simple yes/no question. Even the "X Factor" allows more sophisticated voting than THAT!

They need NUANCE. But as we've seen, people do not DO nuance.

Remember, the Liberal Democrats plans for constitutional reform were never a single yes/no referendum. Not even for PR. We were and remain in favour of a Constitutional Convention where people together would develop the constitution and voting system. And THAT is the sort of model we should be looking for: town hall meetings, drop in shops, volunteer committees, suggestion boxes. Policy should grow from the bottom up, not be imposed from the top down.

Which, ultimately, is the same problem we have with Europe. We need a movement to RECONNECT the people of Europe with the policy-makers and power-brokers in Brussels and Strasburg and, increasingly, Berlin.

We need Europe to listen to her people, and the people to feel a part of Europe, not apart from Europe.

And no referendum is ever going to achieve that!

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