Wednesday 27 May 2015

Referendums add to the gaiety of a nation

Anyone who doubts that history repeats itself would do well to take a look at Harold Wilson and the great European referendum of 1975.

Wilson led a government that had been returned with a slim majority, and a party that was divided on Europe. His way out was to argue not that membership of the European Economic Community was wrong per se, but that the Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath had secured entry on totally unacceptable terms.

So Labour “renegotiated” those terms, secured a few footling concessions, declared a famous victory and put the result to the great British public in a referendum with, inevitably, the more positive and appealing “yes” option being for continued membership of what was then generally called the Common Market.

Nearly every apparently sane mainstream political leader campaigned for a “yes” vote. The “no” camp was dominated by the barmy Labour left, though it also contained a few obvious nutjobs from the Tory right, the by then Ulster Unionist Enoch Powell, and – intriguingly – Plaid Cymru and the SNP.

Small wonder that I was conned into voting “yes”, along with 67.2% of my fellow electors.

We were reassured by entirely dishonest claims that continued membership involved “no essential loss of British sovereignty” and also strongly influenced by what appeared to be the economic reality of the time: that Britain was stuck in perennial doldrums while the Continent powered ahead. Can we blamed for fancying a share of that prosperity?

I can’t say that I have regretted my decision ever since, though I have certainly done so since the political nature of the European Union project became impossible to ignore from the late 1980s. 

Today the UK political background is eerily similar to what it was 40 years ago, and the master plan in Downing Street is clearly exactly the same: claim success in the “negotiations” and campaign for a “yes”.

The difference today is that it is the UK which is doing pretty well economically and the rest of the EU that is in the doldrums, mired in the entirely predictable consequences of its economically illiterate, politically driven euro project.

Whether this will have any impact on the outcome I rather doubt, given that every business voice that can be wheeled out in support of the EU is already burbling on about the vital importance of our continued membership.

Just remember, won’t you, that most of those making this case also told you that the UK would be finished if it didn’t join the euro when it was launched in 1999? An issue on which they have since fallen curiously silent.

I for one will take some convincing before I repeat my mistake of 1975, though I am at least open to reason.

I also find that I am warming to the idea of referendums in general. They may be expensive and introduce the risk of dumb people making the wrong choice, rather than the one preferred by the man in Whitehall who knows best.

But they do help to encourage real public engagement in political issues: witness the high turnout in Scotland last year. And, as Ireland proved so convincingly last week, they can add greatly to the gaiety of a nation.

Back in the 1970s we endured real agonies debating whether a referendum had any place in the unwritten British constitution. It was condemned as an assault on Parliamentary sovereignty, and the sacred principle that thick people elect slightly less thick people to take all the important decisions for them.

Today the agonising has been narrowed down to whether EU citizens resident in the UK should be allowed to participate, which is a bit like debating the franchise on a turkey farm just in advance of Christmas.

And, bizarrely, whether 16 and 17 year olds should be allowed to vote. In the same news bulletins where we hear appeals to trace 16 year old girls who have run off with older men or headed for Syria to be jihadi brides.

Because in those instances they are still children who cannot be held responsible for their actions. 

Exactly. You can’t have it both ways. So I say yes to referendums, and no to votes for children.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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