We should not look at Referenda with one eye closed
In the ever-changing face of European and world politics, some of us – of a particular age I might add – are finding it difficult to fully comprehend what’s happening. We are fortunate to have lived in a post WW2 era of relative peace and security as result of the efforts of earlier generations. Now we see that security being threatened by what we perceive as political upheaval, moving us out of our comfort zone. We are old enough to know of the horrors of that era but not young enough to dismiss it to the archives of history. Younger people have the luxury of that freedom. Politics and international affairs have become akin to a reality TV show, whilst we identify real politics more with TV series like the West Wing, or Yes, Minister.
The Trump administration continues to surprise, shock or even entertain as world affairs are played out in a fashion that once would have been seen as a mere caricature of reality.
Closer to home we have Brexit, which in turn has become the reality of a British position on the EU as depicted in various episodes of the Yes, Minister comedy series shown over 30 years ago.
We have the rise of right wing extremist groups across Europe with an increased and dangerous rise in Nationalism, all of which leads to division rather than unity. Whilst this leaves some of us in fear, to others it is merely an effort to effect social change. The rise of populist agendas based on single-issue items is equally worrying. Society is best served through a democratic system that endeavours to present a comprehensive holistic view across a wide spectrum of issues.
In recent years across the world, political establishments are learning, the hard way, an old lesson about the precarious business of conducting referenda. A single-issue question, asked of angry, disillusioned voters in an age of post-austerity and political instability, is always likely to produce an unpredictable result.
A referendum is a precious instrument of fundamental democracy that should be used sparingly, rarely and only in exceptional circumstances, bearing in mind that referenda are inconsistent with the widely held belief of the concept of parliamentary sovereignty. Issues might be too complex for a mere yes/no vote or for the public to understand. Tempting as it may sound to consult the people on a particular issue, the response is very likely to be distorted by other factors: suspicion of those in power, disinterest in the question on the ballot paper and the now malign influence of a social media where half-truths and conspiracy theories contend for attention with facts and figures and, more worryingly, simplistic populist slogans may often win the day.
In reality they are a demagogue’s dream, allowing populists free rein to fan fears and distort realities. Reducing complex proposals to a gut, instinctive reaction of yes or no can be divisive and undemocratic, often lacking the compromise, nuance and balance required in the Dáil to procure a parliamentary majority. Some time ago, I came across the following inscription on a monument, which I feel is worthy of consideration in the context of this article:
“The responsibility of those who exercise power in a Democratic Government is not to reflect inflamed public feeling but to help form its understanding” (US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter 1958)
Do we really elect people to the Oireachtas and then expect them to abdicate their decision-making responsibility to forums such as a Citizens Assembly or a referendum?
Few leaders have shown the strategic wisdom of former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González, who assiduously prepared Spain for a vote on NATO membership before actually calling a referendum in 1986. Gonzalez engaged in a vigorous campaign for continued, but limited, NATO membership. The government presented NATO membership as a corollary to EC membership, and it warned of the serious economic and social consequences of a vote to withdraw. In spite of opinion polls indicating the probability of a negative outcome, his government secured a clear margin of victory for its proposition, with almost 60% of the electorate participating in the referendum. Which leads to the fact there probably should be a threshold for any constitutional change, either a minimum turnout requirement or a supermajority requirement, perhaps two-thirds, before change is implemented – not unusual in changing constitution of sporting organisations. The Polish constitution provides that a referendum outcome shall only be valid if turnout exceeds 50%. Australia has a double threshold rule, which means that not only must the majority of voters vote yes for a particular proposal, but also the majority of states and/or constituencies must also support it.
In the UK for example The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, introduced fixed term elections to the Westminster parliament for the first time. Under the provisions of the Act, parliamentary general elections must be held every five years. A vote of no confidence, or a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Commons, can still trigger a general election at any time. Yet a simple majority of a handful of votes via a referendum could bring about such a significant change as Brexit.
In Ireland we are slowly promoting referenda on a variety of social policy issues but we should tread carefully because once the referendum genie is out of the bottle it’s very hard to put it back in as is now obvious with some of our closest neighbours. When asked whether referenda were a good idea, Michael Marsh, a political scientist at Trinity College Dublin, said: “The simple answer is almost never.”
Given that it’s the holiday season and, in an effort, to promote some light reading after the seriousness of the points above I have extracted five points from Yes, Minister in relation to how they viewed Europe, which I hope will give you a smile!
Brits are distrustful of Europe — always have been
From ‘The writing on the wall’ (1980)
Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last 500 years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well?
Hacker: That’s all ancient history, surely?
Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We had to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch… The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it’s just like old times.
Hacker: But surely, we’re all committed to the European ideal?
Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, minister.
Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?
Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It’s just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.
Hacker: What appalling cynicism.
Sir Humphrey: Yes… We call it diplomacy, minister.
Every man, woman and country for themselves
From ‘The devil you know’ (1981)
Hacker: Europe is a community of nations, dedicated towards one goal.
Sir Humphrey: Oh, ha ha ha.
Hacker: May we share the joke, Humphrey?
Sir Humphrey: Oh, Minister, let’s look at this objectively. It is a game played for national interests, and always was. Why do you suppose we went into it?
Hacker: To strengthen the brotherhood of free Western nations.
Sir Humphrey: Oh really. We went in to screw the French by splitting them off from the Germans.
Hacker: So why did the French go into it, then?
Sir Humphrey: Well, to protect their inefficient farmers from commercial competition.
Hacker: That certainly doesn’t apply to the Germans.
Sir Humphrey: No, no. They went in to cleanse themselves of genocide and apply for readmission to the human race.
Hacker: I never heard such appalling cynicism! At least the small nations didn’t go into it for selfish reasons.
Sir Humphrey: Oh really? Luxembourg is in it for the perks; the capital of the EEC, all that foreign money pouring in.
Hacker: Very sensible central location.
Sir Humphrey: With the administration in Brussels and the Parliament in Strasbourg? Minister, it’s like having the House of Commons in Swindon and the Civil Service in Kettering!
No one wants to eat salami!
From ‘Party games’ (1984)
Hacker: By the end of next year we shall be waving goodbye to the good old British sausage and we’ll be forced to accept some foreign muck like salami or bratwurst or something in its place.
Sir Bernard Woolley: They can’t stop us eating the British sausage, can they?
Hacker: They can stop us calling it the sausage though. Apparently, it’s going to be called the emulsified, high-fat offal tube.
Sir Bernard: And you swallowed it?
Those pesky Eurocrats
From ‘The devil you know’ (1981)
Hacker: Brussels is a shambles. You know what they say about the average Common Market official? He has the organising ability of the Italians, the flexibility of the Germans and the modesty of the French. And that’s topped up by the imagination of the Belgians, the generosity of the Dutch and the intelligence of the Irish.
Weapons against the world
From ‘The grand design’ (1986)
Sir Humphrey: With Trident we could obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe.
Hacker: I don’t want to obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe.
Sir Humphrey: But it’s a deterrent.
Hacker: It’s a bluff. I probably wouldn’t use it.
Sir Humphrey: Yes, but they don’t know that you probably wouldn’t.
Hacker: They probably do.
Sir Humphrey: Yes, they probably know that you probably wouldn’t. But they can’t certainly know.
Hacker: They probably certainly know that I probably wouldn’t.
Sir Humphrey: Yes, but even though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t, they don’t certainly know that although you probably wouldn’t, there is no probability that you certainly would!
Enjoy the holiday read!