Politics is conversation. Take a topical subject, such as living standards: their future will be shaped by foreign policy, government spending, tax levels, regulation, public borrowing, monetary policy, welfare, industrial strategy, transport links, families, regional policy, school standards, work – that’s lucky 13, and I haven’t even started to get going. Their interaction must be talked through and acted on.
Because we can’t be bothered to do either ourselves, we delegate those tasks to other people, on the condition that we can hire and fire them. These people talk, so they sit in Parliament (from “parlement”, meaning parley), and act. And the executive, which acts, sits with the legislature, which talks.
That’s our parliamentary government in a nutshell; it works better than its competitors (communism, autocracy, naziism and, with a topical nod to Iran, theocracy), and for that reason I’m reflexively suspicious of tampering with the democratic ball. Which, at first glance, is what referendums do.
For they can give only one answer or another, and topics don’t translate into them easily. If politics is conversation, referendums are shouting: two people say yes or no to each other, their voices rising as neither yields, until the stronger voice prevails. You wouldn’t call that a recipe for domestic harmony in your home and it isn’t one in our common home, Britain.
But, every now and again, a subject arises in which the least bad option may be direct democratic decision by the people. I leave it for you to judge whether our original national referendum, that of 1975 on whether the UK should stay in the Common Market, was a masterclass in tactical manoeuvering by the then Labour Government or a triumph of the popular will.
Margaret Thatcher said at the time that referendums are “a device of demogogues and dictators” (thinking doubtless of how, when she was eight years old, Hitler rubber-stamped his seizure of supreme power with a rigged plebiscite). But whatever your view, referendums have morphed, since then, into a settled feature of our constitution.
Nineteen seventy nine, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2014 – each saw popular votes respectively in Scotland, Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland (and London), the north-east and Scotland again, in the last on so momentous a matter as ending the United Kingdom. A transport referendum, advisory referendums, even a water referendum: all have taken place in recent years.
Maybe, on reflection, referendums are less like tampering with the ball than applying laquer to it, so helping to preserve it. Either way, there have been two fully national referendums since 1975 – that on the alternative vote in 2011, emphatic in result and easily forgotten, and on EU membership in 2016, closer – and impossible to forget.
Whatever your view of Brexit and its consequences, the result turned political power upside-down, at least as far as our democratic system allows. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Liberal Democrats, the CBI, the TUC, most bishops, the Governor of the Bank of England, the Foreign Office Permanent Secretary, Tony Blair – the great and sometimes not so good all voted Remain.
With them beat the heart of the civil service, academia, the BBC, the arts: the commanding heights of British culture. Most of the 48 per cent of the public who voted Remain have since reconciled themselves to the result. At the last election, Boris Johnson, campaigning on a manifesto of Getting Brexit Done, won a majority of 80.
But a sliver of Team Remain has never come to terms with losing that game seven years ago. The result seemed to them to be an affront to the natural order of the country – one in which they would always be top dog, whether the government of the day was light reddish or light blueish.
The many might vote at general elections, but the few would always be in charge: pro-EU, pro-inclusion (of people they consider acceptable), pro-Net Zero, pro-NATO, pro-America (at least, Barak Obama or Joe Biden’s one) and, broadly, pro the economic settlement forged by Margaret Thatcher and accepted by Tony Blair.
There are better worldviews and, as Hamas’s recent atrocities in Israel remind us, far worse. But the EU referendum result was a mortal blow to their sense of entitlement, self-worth and, for the more perceptive of them, power. Alastair Campbell, whose career has been an execise in exporting a footballish mentality (of a certain kind) to politics, is a good example.
Yah, boo, send him off, keep him on, yes it was a penalty, no it wasn’t, oi ref!, three nil to Blair, Burnley till I die: all this is part of the fun and game of football. Whether it should be exported to politics is debatable. But Campbell should be paid the compliment of understanding, none better, that politics can’t be practised without power.
I apologise for taking so long to come to my putative subject – namely, the rejection, in Australia, of “The Voice” by a referendum: the margin as I write seems to be 60-40. There have been complaints about the BBC’s coverage of the campaign. Elsewhere, it has dug itself into a deep hole over its refusal to describe Hamas as terrorists.
On which point, see John Ware’s long list of occasions on which the BBC has labelled organisations terrorist and their actions terrorism. In the case, of The Voice, the BBC report I link to seems pretty straight up. But it isn’t clear as one reads it what the vote was about. I doubt whether that is the author’s fault.
As far as I can see, The Voice was presented to the Australian people as really important without changing very much. Being sensible people, they rejected this muddle in all six states. The proposal seems to have had something to do with a consultative platform for indigenous people, but I defy anyone to understand it as it seems to have been presented.
Most people here won’t have followed the referendum at all, let alone enough to get to the bottom of it. But some of those who are still consumed by Brexit will have done, and the result will reinforce their prejudices: in particular, that the British people should vote in referendums as seldom as possible, if at all. Don’t risk letting the Many upset the apple cart that the Few have so artfully constructed.
If that sense is strong in a lot of the left, the opposite will be true of much of the right. This division is ominous. Most of the left now believes that political authority ultimately resides in international norms as interpeted by judges. Most of the right thinks that it lives in Parliament, determined by people we elect.
Amidst this impasse, referendums are becoming a safety valve which, by giving people what elites might seek to deny them, lets pressure out of the system, and so helps to preserve it. Parliamentary government requires many voices. Referendums, two – in the sense that they pit Yes and No. Remove them, and only one voice – The Voice, if you like – speaks. That sounds more like dictatorship than democracy.