They are the political equivalent of road rage, according to YouGov’s Peter Kellner, and potentially just as destructive to a healthy democracy. It is perhaps this perception that has encouraged the pundits and journalist to push David Cameron this week, and last, with that irksome little R word: referendum. If the Lisbon treaty fails to be ratified, they want to know, will Cameron really call a referendum on Lisbon?
There is mounting Eurosceptic pressure on Cameron from within the party, and last weekend’s ‘Yes’ vote in Ireland has only upped its intensity. Of course, the question of whether he’ll call a referendum or not is, strictly speaking, a hypothetical hypothetical. If the Tories are elected. If Lisbon fails to be ratified by all 27 members of the EU.
Cameron, as you would expect at such an important hour, is choosing his words carefully. In his keynote conference speech today he maintained, implicitly at least, his commitment to a referendum on Europe: “Let’s return to democratic and accountable politics the powers the EU shouldn’t have.” But he’s using the hypothetical to his advantage: if Lisbon fails to be ratified, then he’ll push for referendum. But only if. Europe was the undoing of the premierships of both Thatcher and Major. Cameron knows he is not immune from Europe’s divisive and disastrous potential.
But a referendum, hypothetically, would surely be a good thing? Democracy in action? The voice of the people? Well, not quite. Referendums may have become a by-word for democracy “in action” over the last 40 years, but in context they are a more complex matter than simply letting the people have their say. The risks of referendum politics, according to Kellner’s July Prospect piece, “Down with people power”, lies, somewhat ironically, in their capacity to weaken democracy, rather than strengthen it. Just look at California for a disastrous example of what happens when the people decide legislation, make the wrong decision, and then have only themselves to blame. Stalemate.
We may like to believe that a referendum will offer us a real choice on Europe, but as Kellner points out, there are many convincing arguments for us to steer clear of direct democracy: it undermines the parliamentary process by taking the decision making…