24/01/2013 2 Comments
So this week we received the (not entirely unexpected) news of the government’s plan for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Comparing the pros and cons of EU membership is extremely complicated and I’m not going to attempt that today. Before we even start thinking about that stuff it’s worth considering whether this issue is actually best decided by a referendum in the first place.
Referenda (pats self on back for pedantic pluralisation) are, on the face of it, a fantastic testimony to the democratic values we hold true – a single important issue and everyone of voting age gets their say.
That’s on the face of it though and I have some concerns. For a start it isn’t at all clear to me how the government decides which policies are subject to a referendum and which they’ll just go ahead and do anyway. The following are referenda (see, did it again) that never happened:
- Should the UK cut income tax for rich people from 50% to 45%?
- Should the UK implement real-term cuts in benefits for poor people?
- Given that the Austerity Fairy hasn’t shown up to magic away the depression, should the UK pursue economics instead?
On these important points, the government has felt ok to decide for us, so what is special about EU membership? We obviously can’t have a referendum about everything but this process is at best unclear. I suspect the reason for this is that David has found himself in a difficult position and were he to decide this himself he would lose either way. If he said that we would leave the EU he’d lose the support of the Lib Dems (even they must have limits as to what they can forget they stand for). If he said we were definitely staying in he’d face a backlash from his own party followed by the familiar sight of the Conservative party self-destructing when Europe is mentioned. For a man who markets himself as taking the “tough choices” this appears to be little more than an attempt to dodge the issue.
Whatever the criteria really are for deciding when something should go to a referendum there is, I feel, a much bigger concern. If we do have a referendum on this decision, I would like to think it would work like this:
- Politicians from all sides will make every effort to fairly and factually represent the pros and cons of EU membership.
- They will be open and honest about their best predictions about what the impact on our economy and our society would be
- They will then give their opinions, to a now educated public, as to what their preference is
- When doing this will clearly show the reasoning behind these opinions and base this reasoning on the facts that we now know.
- The public will make an informed choice
Ok. So now re-read those bullet-points and when doing so, please bear in mind how plausible that sequence of events is.
What I suspect will actually happen is this:
- Politicians from all sides will make every effort to unfairly and, with cherry-picked statistics, misrepresent the pros and cons of EU membership
- They will be a dishonest about their best predictions about what the impact on our economy and society would be
- They will then give their opinions, to a now confused and misled public, as to what their preference is.
- When doing this will base their reasoning on the misleading, cherry-picked statistics that they have previously communicated
- The public will make an uninformed choice
Let’s not stop at politicians – how are the media going to behave in the run-up to such a referendum? Will The Daily Mail journalists all be writing responsible pieces to give the public as much information as possible so they can make their decision an informed one? Will The Sun, (previously of the headline, “Up Yours, Delors!”) be taking a responsible position to make sure their readers are all well-informed?
Remember when we had that referendum on whether we should change the way we elected our MPs from First Past The Post to the Alternative Vote? Do you remember quite how shamefully the politicians behaved during the run up to that? Do you remember quite how badly they misrepresented the facts? Do you remember quite how much time they spent misinforming us instead of running the country? (If you don’t I wrote about it here.)
Imagine that farce multiplied by ten. If we put this issue to a referendum then all we have to look forward to is the full force of politicians and newspapers from all sides pushing their own agendas, each one of them misrepresenting the real costs and benefits in order to intentionally mislead the people who will vote.
Don’t misunderstand me – I like the idea of democracy but this just isn’t what I had in mind. The government says we can choose fairly but let’s be clear on what we’re going to get here – a tsunami of propaganda that will make any sensible consideration of the options utterly impossible.
And you know what else? All those campaigns are going to cost a fortune. Where’s austerity when you need it?