Thursday, June 23, 2016

Come back representation, all is forgiven

This referendum has been utterly misconceived. Some arguments have been passionate, and at times interesting, but that's been rare. Overall, they've been dismal and dispiriting. Amidst the welter of lies, abuse, hatred, atavistic stupidity, death threats, and a real, horrifying murder of one of the best, something else has emerged. A defence of representative democracy against plebiscitary populism is being heard.

The classic statement on representation is from Edmund Burke in his his Speech to the Electors of Bristol in November 1774.
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
A referendum does the opposite. It sacrifices informed judgement to the opinions of a majority who participate, regardless of how large the minority is or the numbers of non-voters. In a mass society, it surrenders Burke's idea of parliament as a "deliberative assembly" to dishonest demagoguery and a competition between snake oil salesmen.

There have been some good pieces written. The comedian David Mitchell wrote one back in May:
Calling this referendum is the worst thing Cameron has done to Britain. It’s such a hugely selfish and irresponsible act ... 
Cameron’s policy-avoidance policy was deftly done, mind you. It plays well, rhetorically – telling people they’ll get to decide, flattering the public’s estimation of its collective wisdom...
They won’t step up and lead. They won’t say they know. Expertise is dismissed as elitist. It’s worse to be “out of touch” with the price of milk than to misunderstand the consequences of Britain suddenly severing all its trade deals. They’re happy for that decision to be made by random vote after a frenzied few months of both sides trying to make the other seem the more apocalyptic or Hitlerian, everyone suddenly so certain in their hyperbole.
David Allen Green on his own blog and in a piece worked up from it for the Financial Times is scathing about the need for the referendum.
The referendum on Britain’s EU membership is unnecessary. There is no objective reason for it to take place: no new treaty or proposed treaty amendment. It is merely a vote on whether the U.K. continues to be part of an international organisation of which it has been a member for over forty years. There is no more reason to have a referendum on this issue in June 2016 than in June 2015 or June 2017.
The referendum is also not binding as a matter of law...
So what we have is an unnecessary referendum without any binding effect. In other words, it is an exercise in pointlessness. Nothing objective happened to cause the need for the referendum, and nothing objective has to happen because of it.
It happened, as we all know, because of a need for a party political fix. An easy triumph was supposed to marginalise the eurosceptic right of the Tory Party. It has failed, they are emboldened and the result is in the balance. The risks are enormous and the consequences, whatever the result, are unknowable. The pawns in this game are the lives and livelihoods that will be affected.

Let's hear now from a latter day Burke, Noel Gallagher (trigger warning - he supports Manchester City):
Do I think [Britain should leave the EU]? I don’t think we should be given a vote.
I see politicians on TV every night telling us that this is a fucking momentous decision that could fucking change Britain forever and blah, blah, blah. It’s like, OK, why don’t you fucking do what we pay you to do which is run the fucking country and make your fucking mind up. What are you asking the people for? 99 percent of the people are thick as pig shit.
I don't like his last sentence. People aren't thick, but they also aren't interested. They know little or nothing about it and it's something they haven't bothered to think about before. They have their own lives to lead. This is to their credit. Drinking with a European Union obsessive is not a pleasant experience. Yet he's right in one sense. This question will be decided by the inexpert.

This doesn't mean that representative democracy cannot be enhanced or that more participatory elements could be included, but, after this experience, no more referendums please. Or at least no more unless as David Allen Green says:
 (a) it is a fundamental constitutional issue and (b) there is an actual proposal for fundamental change for people to consider and to vote on.
This one has been an unpleasant mess.


Marc McKenzie said...

Excellent post. Over here on our side of the pond (the US) most are watching. You are right--it is a mess, but of course we have those few over here cheering for an exit because (deep breath) we have to fight the imperialist/break down the corrupt systems/EU is horrible/something something etc., etc. Oh, and Putin stands tall while the EU, Britain, and the US are utter s**ts.

That's the impression I get from reading comments on some of the left of the Left blogs here. And there are those who mock Jo Cox's murder too. I suppose that's to be expected, but it still makes the blood boil.

Best of luck--we await what the decision will be.

AHRonald said...

You are right, Peter. This has been a disaster. 'They are ringing the bells now, soon they will be wringing their hands.'