There are some things party politics and representative democracy struggle to solve – those few issues that divide parties, that cross left-right divides. Britain’s relationship with the European Union is one such issue and, as a result, prompts calls from the right and, to a lesser extent, from the left, for referendums to solve the UK-EU issue. This issue has been recently highlighted by the People’s Pledge campaign.
If the parties and parliament can’t solve it, give the people a vote! Simple!
Erm, no. Quite the contrary, especially in the UK.
There are such a multitude of problems. First of all, what do each of the options in a referendum actually mean? As I’ve previously blogged, this is fiendishly hard to know in any referendum on EU matters.
Secondly, how do you ensure a level playing field in a campaign? With the forces of the UK media lined up against it, the chances of Yes to AV succeeding were very low – is there any way, given the UK’s media, that either side of any referendum could be presented equally?
Thirdly, how do you frame a question that encompasses considerable complexity? If a vote is to renegotiate, and renegotiation fails, then what? If a vote is to stay in the EU, does that give a government license to negotiate entry into the Euro or not? Would multiple, iterative referendums be needed?
Fourth, what issues should be subject to referendums, and which should not be? If the UK’s membership of the EU is such a thorny issue, why is the UK’s membership of NATO or IMF not put to a vote? The latter has been used to bailout Greece, while it’s the EU that is the focus of public ire.
The UK has been subject to more referendums since 1997 than in its entire political history until that point, yet we still have no adequate answers to any of the basic questions about how these votes should work, or the role (if any?) of referendums in UK politics. How about trying to sort out some answers to these issues before we go any further towards a referendum on an EU matter? Fat chance I fear, for that would require political leadership and responsibility that’s in short supply across all major political parties in the UK just at the moment.