Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 April 2011
There was a time, long ago, when referendums were anathema to us Brits.
Referendums were French – and we didn’t do French, at least at home. Referendums had a role in the colonies, but in Britain they had no place. We had a functioning representative democracy that had no need of vulgar plebiscites any more than it needed bidets or garlic.
That all changed in the 1970s. We discovered genital hygiene, Mediterranean cooking – and the delights of voting “yes” or “no” to a question put to us by the government.
There was a referendum in Northern Ireland in 1973 on whether the Six Counties should remain in the United Kingdom – “yes” won – and, more importantly, Labour won the 1974 general election promising a referendum on continued British membership of what was then called the Common Market. It took place in 1975, and “yes” swept the board. In 1979, there were referendums in Scotland and Wales on devolution. Scotland voted for devolution but not by a sufficient majority to have it implemented. Wales voted against.
All these 1970s referendums were the product of shameless political opportunism – those on Europe and devolution came about because Labour needed a way out of its deep divisions on both issues – and none of them solved anything.
The Northern Ireland sovereignty ballot was little more than a farce because it was boycotted by nationalists (surprise, surprise). And the main effect of the 1979 devolution referendums, held as the Labour government went through its death throes, was to spur proponents of devolution to redouble their efforts.
Even the overwhelming “yes” to Europe in 1975 was less decisive than it seemed. The “yes” campaign had the support of every single national newspaper, the Tories, the Liberals and most members of the Labour cabinet, and it was lavishly funded by big business. The “no” campaign had Tribune and the Morning Star, Michael Foot and Enoch Powell, and a tiny budget. The resentment of the anti-European Tory right about the way their party was manoeuvred into the “yes” camp came to dominate Tory politics in the late 1980s and still remains poisonous.
The 1970s experience put a lot of politicians off referendums – but not Tony Blair or Gordon Brown (who first made his mark as organiser of Labour’s “yes” campaign on devolution in 1979). Under their leadership, Labour went into the 1997 election promising referendums galore – on devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions, on changing the electoral system for the House of Commons, on British membership of the single European currency.
Those on Scotland and Wales took place – both countries voted in favour of devolution in 1997 – and there was one (utterly farcical) ballot on creating an English region in the north-east, in 2004. Otherwise, however, Labour did not keep its referendum promises. Blair pencilled in the euro referendum several times, but Brown got out his eraser for each, and Labour did nothing serious on the electoral reform referendum until Brown desperately made it part of the party’s 2010 general election pitch.
And of course, that promise ended up as government policy – but not of a Labour government. One of the concessions Nick Clegg wrought from David Cameron last year as the price for coalition was a referendum on electoral reform. Which is what we’ve got coming up in three weeks.
I’m not going to get into the arguments about the alternative vote again here. It suffices to say that Clegg’s deal with Cameron to introduce an AV versus first past the post referendum was one of the lousiest opportunist Realpolitik sell-outs in living memory in Britain. His party stood for proportional representation, and the least he should have demanded last May was a multi-choice referendum on the electoral system in which PR was an option. I think he could have got it, but there is no evidence that he even asked.
Whatever, we’ve got AV versus FPTP next month, and who gives a toss outside the political class? The referendum campaigns are run by idiots, and both “yes” and “no” have adopted the most cretinous strategies. “The alternative vote kills babies!” “Sexy celebs want change!” None of the key arguments, for or against AV, has had any purchase. The “no” campaign has been bankrolled by hardline Tory millionaires. The “yes” mob has had liberal charitable foundations dishing out cash that could be better used elsewhere.
But this is what plebiscitary democracy is like. Referendums are always useless for anything important. Most solve nothing, and they’re demeaning. They reduce politics to the lowest common denominator, and when anything that matters is at stake they give big media the whip hand. They are OK for small local things – should you allow the pub to stay open after 11pm? – but that’s about it. Ed Miliband take note: please, no referendum promises.