Saturday, May 17, 2008

Why I'm against referendums and why Brown should take heart

I only partly agree with Martin Kettle on referendums/?referenda.

I am a firm believer in representative democracy. It's a good thing. It works and I don't believe in diluting it by having referendums all of the time.

Practice between countries varies considerably. Germany has no referendums as they are not permitted under their Constitution. Ireland has them all of the time. De Gaulle introduced them in France as a means of bolstering the power of the President as against the Assemblee and the government. The record of referendums in France is not that great and seems to point to what we know - they are often used as a means of registering disapproval of the sitting government of the day (often mid-term).

Britain held a referendum on EU membership (it seems to have the opppsite to any intended effect of 'settling' what was already settled by our Acsession to the EU). The referendum was held because Wilson's government was rent asunder and could only hold itself together by holding a neverendum (and then only just).

That's the only UK wide referendum we've ever had and so I'd only have referendums where:

  • the governing party can't maintain a parliamentary majority on an issue
  • a government decides as part of its policy to put something to a referendum because it's contentious and it prefers to deal with it in that way
  • there's a convention that is virtually assured that devolution measures be put to a referendum in the area directly affected (seems reasonable given that the status quo of a unified state should only be departed from if there is a substantial demand for it from voters). I think the 'bring it on' pov from Wendy Alexander is a bit odd - I think that Scotalnd votes on independence every two to three years - they only have to vote by a majority for the SNP in one of these and the deal is done - negotiations start immediately on making Scotland independent.

My thinking on this tells me what I want Gordon Brown to do with his remaining two years.

To have the power for two years of being the leader of a parliamentary majority is a great thing (more is usually considered better ...) and you can achieve great things with that political space. And some small things as well.

Governments that proceed steadlily, doing the things it wants to do, achieving real change, even though they're behind in the polls - these are the exception rather than the rule. And these rarities are, I believe, recognised by voters.

Come election time we have the ultimate referendum in our system of government. I think it's perhaps a bit of a contrast that under Blair we had a lot of electioneering but not that much governance, maybe in this respect Brown is the ying to Blair's yang. Or vice versa.


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