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Who wants a referendum on Europe?

The argument about a referendum over the EU Treaty is not about democracy, but about politicians trying to control decision-making.

Some things seem to never change.  Alexander Hamilton, some two hundred plus years ago, was a luminary of the American revolution.  He espoused a creed of natural aristocracy – rule by the best among us (including, naturally, himself) for life.  In the presidential elections of 1800 his faction faced defeat at the hands of the democratic forces led by Thomas Jefferson.  Back then, the votes for the presidency in New York State were exercised by the state legislature.  When the legislature fell into the hands of the democratic party, Hamilton proposed that the rump aristocracy party enact legislation in the dying hours of their term, to put the votes for the presidency into the hands of the electorate at large.  That is, one of the true believers in authority and elite rule, one of the verymost opponents of democracy, saw his very last chance in an appeal to the people against the leaders of the opposing faction.

Today, we see a similar story.  The Conservative Party in Britain, opposed to the Lisbon Treaty, are demanding a referendum on the former “constitution.”  Obviously, they choose to call for this because they are sure that Europe is unpopular, so any referendum would be certainly lost.  That is that they are being fundamentally dishonest.  In order to avoid exposing splits in their own party, they campaign for a referendum, rather than simply stating out loud that they oppose the treaty itself.

One extraordinary part of this call is the insistence, loudly declaimed by Tory nerd William Hague, that they are simply trying to live up to their manifesto commitment – and why won’t Labour do likewise?  This, from the party of Burke, the propounder of the theory that parliamentarians are not delegates, that they are not bound by any election promise, and can (and indeed should) vote as they see fit for the duration of their term.  “Your representative owes you,” he famously said “not only his industry but also his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.  This is the ideology of the party of natural rulers.  Perhaps this overthrowing of their own bedrock ideology is what they meant by the Conservative revolution.  Now, after having failed to get their democratic referendum in the House of Commons they’ll doubtless use their, er, unelected members of the House of Lords to try and get their way.

No principle is inviolate, none that cannot be overthrown to the first among them all: being in power is an end in itself.  Of course, the very same applies to Labour.  They only do not want a referendum because they know that they would lose it.  Jack Straw bleats how we are a “parliamentary democracy” we don’t do things via referendums (as if it doesn’t lie in his hands to change that fact), and besides, the issues are too complex.  This from a member of the party that took Britain into the EU after a referendum, and that has had referendums on local mayors, Scottish devolution, Welsh devolution, London devolution, North Eastern devolution, council housing and schools since it took office 11 years ago.  The self-same party that is now planning a potential referendum in Wales on further devolved power.

Wasn’t it, Jack, the self-same party that promised a referendum on the constitution in the first place?  That shamelessly forgot that “we live in a parliamentary democracy” and that the “issues are too complex” simply to get itself out of a temporary political hole?  Of course it was.  Obviously, Jack, you’d say that this isn’t the constitution now – and certainly the fripperies and fopperies of a constitution have been taken away, and Britain has secured its opt-outs.

Ah, yes, those opt-outs.  Enough opt-outs that it barely looks like Britain has opted in to anything.  The party of so-called Labour opting out of increasing workers’ rights.  They’ve opted out of the Charter of Fundamental rights (it won’t be enforceable in British law) despite being the proud trumpeters of enshrining the Human Rights Act into British law.  They’ve also opted out of majority voting on police and justice measures.  So many opt-outs, indeed,  that failure to secure the treaty itself will leave other European government heads wondering whether Britain should really be in the club at all.  

The treaty is a deal hammered out in the old fashioned semi-feudal way of ministers meeting in darkened rooms and fudging a solution between each other in the European Council – very like the way in which Hamilton and his mates (the so called Founding Fathers) stitched up the US constitution to keep the filthy paws of the electorate as far from power as they could. 

Albeit that the Lisbon treaty does actually make the European Council a fully fledged body of the EU, rather than just an informal meeting of heads of government.  Another EU body, the Council of  Ministers, which actually decides EU laws, already makes its minutes public and the directly elected Parliament has at least once sacked the commission.  The EU is democratising, at a snail’s pace.  Part of the drive for this is precisely that wheeler dealing in darkened rooms is perceived to be a hindrance to its development.  The veto is a road block to decision making and the interests of the most powerful blocs within the EU (principally France and Germany). In fact, the treaty extends majority voting, i.e. removes the vote, to a wide variety of matters.

There are three fundamental questions that can be asked of any decision making process.  (1) Who initiates proposals and policies?  (2) Who deliberates on and amends them and gets to decide the detail?  (3) Who gets to approve them and has the final say?  We can say that the more people are involved, or potentially involved, at any given stage, the more democratic the process is.  In the case of international treaties like Lisbon, or referendums on any subject a government may choose, the answers to 1 and 2 will be ministers and parliamentarians (and, so long as they have a majority, that means in practice the parliamentarians of the ruling party).

The point of difference between Labour and the Tories, then, is solely on the fruits of the third stage, a yes/no decision on a completed and formulated proposition with no chance of changing it.  This, clearly, isn’t a debate on principle between two differently democratic parties with one giving more power to the people than the other.  It is a pallid dance between pretenders to the crown who will be buggered if they surrender their capacity to dictate events willingly.

What differentiates them from someone like Hugo Chavez – the current darling of the Romantic lefty who likes to fall in love with far-flung revolutionary utopias?  At the end of last year, his referendum on constitutional reform was defeated.  It contained a raft of proposals, a mishmash of changes to property and electoral law.  Cunningly, it also included a provision to remove the two-term limit for the president that, er, he introduced when he originally wrote that constitution.  Such bundling is a trick beloved of those who have to submit their policy to someone else at stage 3. 

Of course, despite those lefties, who will harp on that Chavez has won 7 elections in 9 years and is the paragon of democratic revolution, Chavez is perfectly upfront about his political goals.  He takes as his hero Simon Bolivar, who was, some two hundred years ago, a luminary of the South American revolution. He espoused a creed of natural aristocracy – rule by the best among us (including, naturally, himself) for life.  He was fond of creating constitutions too.

It would probably come as a surprise to the followers of Hugo Chavez and David Cameron just how much their idols have in common – and they would probably deny it to the bitter death in blood flecked phlegm.  The fact is, though, that the rules of the game for the rulers are the same by very dint of coming to power and trying to shape things to their individual will – like, as Chavez has it, an artist painting a picture, seeing the parts into a whole.  To rule you must initiate policy, and control the detail.  If someone else’s consent is required the skills of the card sharp are needed to force the right choice on your mark.

That is the nub of this dispute over Europe.  It is not an argument about democracy, but a turf battle between competing rulers protecting their own turfs, their zones of influence, versus the wider goals of creating a functional Europe wide market area.  Just as domestic politics is about one faction imposing  their will on the other, so, increasingly, is European politics – but at the cost of eroding domestic political power.  Both Labour and Tory are walking a fine line between trying to be part of the winning faction in Europe and staying in charge at home.  Their motto throughout continues to be: “All power to myself.”

PIK SMEET