Daily Archives: 22 January 2008

The referendum question

I have to admit to remaining of the view that if the Lib Dems are in favour of a referendum on our continued membership of the EU, which we apparently are, then if that option looks as if it will get nowhere (which it does) we should be supporting the next best option, a referendum on the Reform Treaty. The fact that we’ve consistently failed to enthuse the public about the EU should not be a reason for refusing to face the music.

But if I don’t quite get Clegg’s line, Cameron’s line is even more inconsistent. Why this fig leaf about a referendum? If the Tories are opposed to the Reform Treaty, which when you read between the lines they clearly are, then why not simply say so? Why push for a national referendum, at great public expense, when a simple no vote in Parliament would save us all a lot of time and money?

It is pure oppositionism – opposing the government for the sake of opposition. The purpose of a referendum in this context (since it isn’t citizen-initiated) is to ratify a decision of Parliament; but if Parliament doesn’t make that decision then we don’t require a referendum.

The Tories have always been the opponents of referendums. They now present themselves as champions, but look a little closer. With the Reform Treaty, they are seeking to give the public a vote on an issue that they oppose and calculate the public do to. With their proposals over council tax, they will only permit a public vote if a local authority exceeds a “trigger threshold” (or as it is currently known, a cap) set by the (Tory) government. Referendums have their place as a way to hold the government of the day to account; but when they are used by government to simply make themselves look popular they are a blatant abuse of taxpayer’s money. It is the politics of Napoleon or indeed Nazi Germany.

There are two ways you can arguably use referendums legitimately – to ratify a constitutional change or at the behest of a significant proportion of the public. You might oppose both uses of referendums, but the dangers inherent of allowing governments to pick and choose as it suits them must surely be worse? Even the much maligned Hugo Chavez doesn’t do that.

You might be uncomfortable with the thick authoritarian streak running through Labour, but Cameron’s weakness for despotism is potentially far worse.