|Some further thoughts on referendums
5 Jun 2005
The text books on referendums may have been rewritten since I spent three agreeable years at Oxford, unconcerned about how to pay off any Student Loan, inquiring into, amongst other less academic subjects, the British Constitution. The prevailing wisdom then was that prudent Governments would only call a referendum if they were certain of winning it. These essentially continental devices therefore had a limited role to play in the furtherance of democracy. The experience of Germany in the 1930’s, I vaguely recall my tutor telling me, after I had been up all night playing backgammon, was evidence for the prosecution. Hitler held four referendums – one inviting people to vote for Freedom, Peace and Reconstruction - and won them all.
Governments, the undergraduate of the 60’s was taught, could choose the issue; the question; and the timing. Should there be any lingering doubt about the outcome, the Exchequer could fund an appropriate publicity campaign. Only a Prime Minister of heroic incompetence could cock it up. This type of response, suitably rephrased and padded out into a few thousand words, would have earned an alpha minus in any contemporary undergraduate essay.
No longer. Chirac did not have to have a referendum on the EU constitution; he did not have to have it in May when the French economy was in a bad way and his personal popularity was at an all time low. Yet he pushed the button and, politically speaking, self-destructed
So what has happened? I offer my modest thoughts.
The answer may be found in what happened in the North East of England last year, when the good folk were offered a referendum by John Prescott on a spanking new Regional Assembly. They said Thank you, but No. To be precise, 22% said Thank you and 78% said No.
President Chirac should then have sent a telegram to the French Ambassador in London saying “Comment ça va en Londres, mon vieux? J’espère que le bid Olympique anglais est au fond de la Tamise. Mais qu’est-ce qui se passe donc en Durham? ”
I’ll tell him. People felt disempowered; taken for granted; suspicious of yet more well-paid politicians spending yet more of their money; worried that decision-taking was becoming more remote and that the local institutions they trusted and were fond of were being destroyed. Their county council was going to be abolished and a remote tax-raising assembly put in its place. So they said no, we prefer things as they are; that is a road down which we do not wish to go.
And so it was with the good folk of France and the Netherlands. To change metaphors, they have pulled the emergency cord. The European gravy train has shuddered to a halt. Politicians everywhere should sit up and take note.