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Saturday, 27 June 2009

You Say You Want A Referendum?

Some politicians want one. Many more in the tabloid press agree with them. Given a suitably sensitive subject – Europe, Europe and Europe, but not necessarily in that order – there will be someone in the press or the blogosphere telling that the only way to settle the issue is to have a Referendum. So why don’t we have one?

Well, why not? On the issue of whether or not we can have a Referendum, there should be no problem: the UK, not having a written constitution, neither provides for referenda, nor proscribes them. So, if it ain’t banned, it must be allowed. And if it’s allowed, there must be previous referenda to show the kinds of reasons for having one, and the way we do them, right?

Yes and no. Unfortunately, the Referendum cupboard only has one item on the shelf, and studying it does not leave us much wiser – except to demonstrate that party politics changes little over time. We’ve had a Referendum only once, in 1975, although those of a Eurosceptic persuasion will be glad to see that Europe was, as now, the issue.

The 1975 vote was won by the “yes” campaign, that “yes” being to confirm the UK’s membership of the then EEC. This illustrates one potential hazard: in a democracy, the vote may produce a variety of outcomes, one or more of which may not prove agreeable to those agitating for that vote. Right now, anyone advocating a Referendum over Europe – the current target is the Lisbon Treaty – wants the vote to produce one outcome only, that outcome being rejection of the Lisbon accord. And part of that advocacy is the belief of victory.

More significantly, the 1975 Referendum had little to do with any wish to give the electorate more say on the issue of Europe. It was a convenient device for Harold Wilson to use in order to hold together an increasingly fractious Labour Party. For all those in the party who favoured EEC membership, such as Wilson himself, and Roy Jenkins, there were those who were implacably opposed, like Barbara Castle and Tony Benn. Wilson allowed his pro and anti MPs to campaign for their chosen outcome, the idea being that they might be less individually fractious after the electorate had had their say.

Wilson kept his party together, and the idea of another Referendum was not raised seriously for many years afterwards. But now it’s back, with an uneasy convocation of the antediluvian with those who just want to spread some instability for their own benefit. Thus the Daily Telegraph, which gives the impression that it has still not been reconciled to the loss of India, finds itself in the same corner as Rupert Murdoch, whose business ambition has been blunted by the dastardly Eurocrats.

But none of that stops us having another Referendum, if we want one, does it? Of course not. I’ll have another look at this one soon.

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