As a preamble, we should recognise that high profile politicians, particularly those in government, have always let us down. I hope to return to this subject in a forthcoming post.
When I was a student, we had the ‘three day week’—a joint production between tory prime minister, Mr Edward Heath and far left would-be firebrand, Mr Mick McGahey, vice president of the national union of mineworkers [*1]. Each was the other’s shadow figure or archetype [*2] Electricity was actually cut off to industry, business generally, tv stations and to the man and woman in the street. I remember wandering around my college in the dark it the middle of the evening because that was slightly more entertaining, bumping into things, than sitting in my room in the dark. Imagine that situation happening today. People wouldn’t be able to recharge their phones: uproar would ensue!
Then there was Lady “There is no such thing as society” Thatcher. A woman so driven by her hatred of ‘working class’ people that she set about destroying the mining industry, more or less fatally damaged other industries and sold to the British people that which they already owned *, knowing that, give it a few months, all the shares would be snapped by corporates and other large businesses.
Or, again, Mr Tony Blair, who took this country to war in Iraq on a lie [*3][*4].
So, in some respects, the failings of our current high profile politicians may pale a little in comparison with these titans of former years. Johnson did not taken us into war (the concept is risible). Gove hasn’t the strength of personality, by his own repeated admission [*5], to take decisions which would destroy the livelihoods of British people. I can see Cameron, through a mixture of ineptitude and an overweening attachment to being right, ending us up with the lights out throughout the country. Doesn’t look like that will happen, now.
So, here are the recent major crimes:
1 Cameron called a referendum, knowing that referendums have no place in a parliamentary government such as the UK’s. Had we a written constitution, the referendum would have been unconstitutional **. Referendums, as a lot of people are discovering for the first time, are not tools which determine policy, they are advisory. They can be overruled by parliament, which is the only sovereign law making body in the UK. In the case of the EU referendum, the next steps are complicated and not entirely clear (by which I mean that law experts are not in unanimity).
2 Cameron called a referendum as an alternative to fighting it out with sections of the party of which he was supposed to be “leader”, and with Mr Nigel Farage, the “leader” of UKIP. This was cowardice, incompetence or stupidity, or any combination.
Immediately after the referendum he resigned, rather than stay on to help sort out the mess he’d created.
3 The wrong question was asked. We were asked:
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
This requests an opinion, not a decision. A referendum, if it is to have any value at all, is supposed to give guidance to parliament on what to do. So, obviously, I would have thought, a decision was needed. The opinion of those who respond is, strictly speaking, irrelevant.
A better question would have been, “Do you want the UK remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
4 The wrong answers were offered. In addition to yes and no, voters should have been offered ‘don’t know’ and ‘don’t care’ options. This is important because it provides a way of accounting for those who did not vote. Of course there will be a small minority who didn’t vote through sudden illness or the illness of a loved one, sudden business needs to be elsewhere on polling day—and their wishes need to be addressed one way or another—but, on the whole, people who don’t vote can be assumed not to care and therefore their numbers can be assigned to that category.
I suspect that those who don’t care plus those who don’t know (an honourable group of people, who recognise that inadequate information had been provided by all sides, and who didn’t want to ‘guess’ and, actually, understood that the decision is beyond almost anyone who isn’t a specialist in economics and law) would accurately be little fewer than those who positively vote in plus those who vote out.
5 A minimum turnout should have been stipulated. At the very, very least I suggest two thirds, but really 75% or 80% is necessary, given that, if a referendum is to be democratic, it has to be based on the active participation of a large majority of the people entitled to vote—preferably everybody. A referendum cannot be democratic if only 72% of the electorate votes.
In Australia, it is an offence not to vote in an referendum (or election) and a failure to vote attracts a fine of up to $A170 is imposed. Failure to pay the fine may result in a court hearing [*7].
6 To require a simple majority was foolish. Name one other country that operates such a simple system this. Again, in Australia [*8],
To pass a [national] referendum, the bill must ordinarily achieve a double majority: a majority of those voting nationwide, as well as separate majorities in a majority of states (i.e., 4 out of 6 states).
7 Referendums are bad choices for parliamentary decision making tools because they foist the decision on people, like me, who are incapable of deciding what is best because they, we, are insufficiently informed and don’t knew how to think about the problem. The BBC was seriously lacking in providing programmes on tv and radio which enabled people to think through the issues. These wouldn’t have had to be pro or anti any side, they would just have to be clear thinking, much like the excellent Law in action programme broadcast after the referendum on Radio 4, which dealt with some of the legal issues with three law professors and was a model of clarity [*9]. One wouldn’t want a politician to appear in such a programme (or only a safely former high profile one, or one with very specific knowledge), but the BBC was at fault in failing to provide such content.
So, we were left with an unconstitutional, undemocratic process forced on us, the people, who are not equipped to make the decision, because the person who should have been leading the decision making process was too weak to do that task. We cannot not vote, we have no control over the question and no opportunity to register our dissociation form the process, if we feel like it.
* “The sale of assets is common with individuals and states when they run into financial difficulties. First, all the Georgian silver goes, and then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go.” Harold Macmillan, British Conservative politician and publisher, on government privatisation . speech to the Tory Reform Group (1985)
** It is to be regretted that the House of Lords select committee report, Referendums in the United Kingdom, 2009-10, chose to sit on the fence [*6]:
206. Notwithstanding this, we acknowledge arguments that, if referendums are to be used, they are most appropriately used in relation to fundamental constitutional issues. There are difficulties in defining what constitutes a “fundamental constitutional issue”. Although some constitutional issues clearly are of fundamental importance, and others not, there is a grey area where the importance of issues is a matter of political judgment.
207. To leave such judgments entirely in the hands of the government of the day is in our view inappropriate. Parliament should decide whether or not a referendum is appropriate in a given circumstance.
[*1] Wikipedia: The three day week
[*2] Carl Jung: Archetypes and Analytical Psychology (unattributed, Psychologist world, undated)
[*3] Iraq war: the greatest intelligence failure in living memory (Peter Taylor, the Telegraph, 18 march 2013)
[*4] Iraq dossier drawn up to make case for war – intelligence officer (Richard Norton-Taylor, the Guardian, 12 may 2011)
[*5] ‘I’m not equipped to be PM’ – just one of Gove’s many categorical denials (Harrison Jones, the Guardian, 30 june 2016)
[*6] Referendums in the United Kingdom (House of Lords select committee on the constitution, HL paper 99, 2009-10)
[*7] Wikipedia: Electoral system of Australia
[*8] Wikipedia: Referendums in Australia
[*9] Brexit: the legal minefield (presented by Joshua Rozenberg, BBC Radio 4, 28 june 2016)
© 2016 Jeremy Marchant . published 4 july 2016 . image Free images
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