2 April 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 2 2004

At first sight, nothing could be more democratic than a referendum. Referendums involve people deciding on things directly by simple majority, without the mediation of politicians or political parties. What could be more democratic?

But it’s not quite as simple as that. When one side in a referendum campaign has a lot more power, money and access to the media than the other, when voters are ignorant or apathetic about the issue being decided and when the vote takes place in an atmosphere of political hysteria, a referendum is anything but an exercise in democracy: it is no more than a means of guaranteeing that the rich and powerful and their hired demagogues and propagandists get their way.

And a referendum on the (still not finalised) European Union constitution, as demanded by Michael Howard and a cabal of Europhobic useful idiots in the Labour Party this week, would be a textbook case of such a travesty.

Just think about it. Hardly anyone in Britain has read even a summary of the draft constitution, let alone the whole document. A massive majority of people is completely clueless about what it contains. And this fog of ignorance would not clear during a referendum campaign. Most people simply couldn’t care enough about the European Union’s institutional arrangements to get clued-up.

And then there’s the press. The majority of the people might not give a damn about the constitution, but the press is overwhelmingly antipathetic to it. Of the national newspapers, the Murdoch, Mail, Express and Telegraph titles are all virulently anti-European and are already campaigning relentlessly for its rejection on crude xenophobic grounds, regardless of the consequences.

Against them would be the government, already unpopular and distrusted, backed up half-heartedly by the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent titles and the Mirror and its Sunday sister papers (if they could find space among the celebrity tittle-tattle) — none of them able to come up with a better case for the proposed settlement than the truthful but desperately unexciting argument that it’s not as bad as its detractors make out and a lot better than nothing, because nothing would mean the EU grinding to a halt.

In the circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate for the government to resist calls for the constitution to be put to a referendum.

The EU needs a political structure that works after enlargement, and it would be utterly irresponsible to endanger it by putting it at the mercy of a contest that would almost certainly be won by the populist propaganda of the Eurosceptic press. The argument that the government has denied the people a choice is easily answered: if the people care that much, they can always turf Labour out at the next general election.

Referendums are a fine means of deciding things that don’t really matter — whether Hartlepool has an elected mayor or whether smoking is banned in Norwich pubs — but for anything important we should rely on good old-fashioned representative democracy. Plebiscites are the refuge of populist charlatans.

* * *

On a different matter entirely, I’m afraid I can’t resist taking issue with the editor of this great organ, Mark Seddon, who argued in the Guardian on Monday that Tony Blair should come out in favour of John Kerry’s candidacy in this year’s US presidential election.

It’s not that I don’t want Kerry to win — I do, for lots of reasons, although I don’t think he’s any sort of panacea. It’s just that I don’t think it would be wise for Blair to declare a preference in the outcome of the contest.

Blair is going to have to work with the US administration whoever wins, and there is no sense at all in making an enemy of either candidate. The race between Kerry and George W Bush looks likely to be very close. According to the latest polls, Kerry is marginally ahead, but with six months of vitriolic campaigning still to come the result is impossible to predict. To cap it all, an expression of preference by Blair would have no effect at all on American public opinion. Blair is respected in America for his expression of solidarity in the wake of 9/11 and his support for the US over Afghanistan (and to a lesser extent Iraq) but he is not someone Americans look to for guidance in the polling booth.

Of course, Blair’s closeness to Bush in the past three years is a big issue in the UK, particularly among opponents of the Iraq war. But that is not a good reason to insist that he makes a complete chump of himself.

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