Thursday 20 October 2011

In or Out? Is that the question?

Some questions seem to never go away.

 The Commons will debate on Monday about whether to provide for a referendum on UK membership of the EU. The motion looks set to fail. but that this matter is up for debate at all is a concern.
 Earlier this year we had a referendum on changing the voting system of this country's sovereign Parliament. This was an important change to our (mostly) unwritten constitution. And as such it was wholly right and proper that a referendum should be held. But the European question is of a different ilk entirely.

 I was too young to vote in the last European referendum, but all my political life has been plagued by demands for this to be tested again and again and again. As such my gut reaction is "that old chestnut again". But after a little thought, my mind turns to the reasons for it's return. Firstly the referendum in 1976 has never been fully accepted by the Eurosceptics among us. Secondly the idea of challenging our political leaders by referring to the people over their heads has gained increased currency in recent years.

 In response to the first point the denial of political reality is disturbing but acceptable. We live in a democracy and although I believe them misguided it is their right to question the result. And campaign against it. And it has to be said they remain a minority even in the Sovereign Parliament. Successive elections have failed to increase their numbers to the point where they have ever had a chance of winning the day.

 However the latter issue is more worrying. It insidiously chips at the roots of our representational democracy. In an age of falling polls it is more important to make political institutions more relevant, not less. Besides which the referendum is a very blunt instrument, and less likely to promote involvement. A report by the Electoral Commission for Northern Ireland today suggested that turnout in the referendum was boosted here by the combination with the NI Assembly elections:

 " It is likely that turnout at the local elections and the referendum was boosted by holding both on the same day as the Assembly election. Twentythree per cent of voters surveyed in our public opinion research indicated they would not have voted in the referendum if there had not been an election on the same day."

Referenda have their place, and constitutional issues such as voting systems and even yes ceding permanent power to others are valid issues for them. but they must not be overused to used because we are unhappy with the direction of political travel.

Questions must be posed - what is the proposed change? How does it affect our current constitutional position? - In the case of this referendum, the answer is unclear, and hence the call for a referendum should fail. This does not rule out forever a referendum. Just makes it a question to be decided when we know what is actually happening- when there are concrete proposals on the table that materially change our national status.

Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron have been criticised  for imposing whips on the issue. No- they are both right in this case. The case for a referendum has not been made. and claiming that they are setting themselves against untested public opinion is damaging not to them personally but to all that the Eurosceptics claim to defend.

It is undeniable that much has changed since the '76 referendum. but all of these changes have been considered by successive Parliaments, and decisions taken. These are battles already lost or won, depending on your point of view- not sufficient reason for a referendum now.

I haven't touched on the economic considerations since I haven't needed to - the case against a referendum is won even before the question of cost comes into it. But I will close with one last point. For all the bureaucratic bungles and idiocies that have come from Europe, the UK has profited from it's membership and in regions such as Northern Ireland from the monies that would otherwise be unavailable.

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