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The people must decide their fate

The government must not be allowed to adopt a European constitution without the consent of the governed, says Paul Robinson. Here he explains how we can hold our own referendum

26 April 2003

12:00 AM

26 April 2003

12:00 AM

In 1825 Russian Decembrist revolutionaries in St Petersburg tried to inspire the peasant masses with the slogan ‘Constantine i constitutsia’ (Constantine and a constitution) as they pressed for Tsar Nicholas I to abdicate in favour of his brother Constantine. Unfortunately, their pre-spin audience simply assumed that Constitutsia was Constantine’s wife, and failed to see the advantage of a different Romanov and his lady over the one already reigning. Here today, Britain is about to get its first ever written constitution, drafted by the obliging Eurocrats of the Convention on the Future of Europe, and binding on us all. Yet ‘we the people’ in whose name this document is being produced have not been asked for the slightest whisper of a comment. Our Dear Leader Mr Blair seems to be hoping that the British are as ignorant and uninterested as the Russian peasants of 1825.

Agreed, the British people are more likely to vote on Pop Idol than to debate the latest directive from Brussels about the Eurobanana. It would be remarkable, though, if a whole new system of government were to be implemented without any reference to their views. But that is what our national leaders seem poised to do. Asked if the government would hold a referendum to ratify the new European constitution, Foreign Office spokesman Neill Sharp hedged that, ‘In the UK the government is committed to the existing system of parliamentary democracy, rather than public referenda.’ According to my cereal-box decoder ring, that means ‘No way, José.’ Mr Blair seems determined to ratify whatever nonsense the Convention produces without so much as asking the people of Britain their opinion.

We should not be surprised. The two sentiments heard most often among the peace marchers in London on 15 February were: ‘The government lies to us, and it doesn’t listen.’ And how right they are. The response from Tony Blair was: ‘I want them to listen to the arguments.’ Sorry, Tony. They did listen, they didn’t believe you, and now they want you to listen to them. The ‘demos’ part of democracy is not just a verbal frill.

Most of us feel that the time has passed for the assumption that the public are idiots who cannot understand complex issues, while MPs are more intelligent, better informed and better qualified to make decisions on our behalf. (Indeed, a lot of people probably think that the opposite is the case.) Disenchanted with representative forms of democracy, many now feel that the only way to get their voices heard is through some means of direct democracy, in particular referendums. Referendum voting is a relatively recent innovation, but referendums are now an accepted part of the political process, especially with regard to constitutional issues. The current government and its predecessors have held votes on diverse issues such as EEC entry, Scottish and Welsh devolution, and the establishment of a London mayor. Outside the circles of a few dedicated proponents of Victorian-era parliamentary procedure, nearly everyone now accepts that significant constitutional changes need to be ratified by a popular vote to gain legitimacy.

Even the government accepts in theory the principle of popular consultation. It is committed to holding a referendum on the single currency, even though that is an issue of policy content rather than one of constitutional change. It seems that the public is allowed a say on whether Hartlepool can have the right to elect a monkey as mayor, but not on whether our Queen should find herself subordinated to a European president (one of the likely clauses in any European constitution).


To cover up their refusal to listen, New Labour mandarins are reduced to pretending that the proposed constitution is too trivial to hold consultations about. A government spokesman thus claimed that ‘an EU constitution will not fundamentally change the relationship between the EU and its citizens’, and we are told that the document will merely be a restructuring of existing treaties. This is most strange, since the Convention is labelling its product as a ‘Constitution’, the British government has itself published its own draft ‘Constitution’, and Jack Straw has openly admitted that he favours a constitution for Europe rather than a mere redrafting of treaties.

Can we stop this act of deceit? Already a small band of dedicated democrats are endeavouring to make their voices heard. The Frankfurt-based European Referendum Campaign has established groups of activists in a dozen European countries including the United Kingdom, and is planning a series of meetings to mobilise the public to demand a Europe-wide referendum on the proposed constitution. One must hope that even those supporting the new constitution have seen the benefit of this: to have legitimacy their constitution must have proof of public approval.

Past experience, however, suggests that no amount of lobbying will get the commissars in Whitehall to do what the voters want, rather than what they think is best for us. I therefore suggest that if the government will not give the people a referendum, the people simply hold one of their own. Although under the current laws a privately held referendum would lack binding authority, what people often do not realise is that the same is true of government-sponsored ones. In both cases, legitimacy depends not on official sanction, but on getting a sufficiently large turnout to prove that the votes cast represent the true nature of public opinion.

In fact, a private referendum would have the advantage of preventing the government from abusing the process by asking misleading questions. Referendums are not without peril. In 1995, for instance, the Quebec government held a slyly worded referendum which asked the people whether they wanted their government to negotiate a ‘new partnership’ with Canada. Many voters thought that they could vote ‘Yes’, and still remain part of Canada, while in practice the government planned to interpret a ‘Yes’ vote as a mandate to make an immediate declaration of independence. As the Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau notoriously gloated, the people would be caught ‘like lobsters in a pot’. Those particular crustaceans swam away, but the danger of putting governments in charge of popular consultations is clear.

In the case of the EU constitution, there are fears that the British government might consent to hold a referendum on the constitution but do it simultaneously with one about the single currency. In that way, it would hope to confuse the voters as to the issues involved in both instances, and divide the anti-single-currency camp, as some of those opposed to the single currency will likely oppose the constitution, while others will support it. Were the people of Britain to hold their own referendum outside of official circles, they could avoid these perils.

Certain countries do allow private initiatives to force governments to hold referendums or carry out legislative change. Public participation in such initiatives is often quite high, as witnessed by experience in Switzerland and parts of North America.

The best recent example comes from British Columbia, which has nurtured some of the flakier political concepts of the past 100 years, such as the nutty philosophy of Social Credit. The province’s latest contribution is the idea of Voter Recall. By law, if any individual manages to collect the signatures of 40 per cent of registered voters in a given constituency demanding the recall of the local member of the legislative assembly, the member has to resign and a by-election must be held. So far, nobody has managed to rustle up the necessary number of votes, but last month John Bayne, an eye doctor from the little town of Tsawwassen, came exceedingly close. For less than £10,000 (the maximum permitted under the law), Dr Bay
ne gathered the votes of some 38 per cent of registered voters in his constituency in an effort to unseat the unpopular local MP, Val Roddick. Bayne’s example proves that individuals can mobilise a very large percentage of the popular vote for private initiatives. And they can do this with limited resources. Extrapolating the above figures to the United Kingdom, the citizens of the UK could solicit a similar percentage of votes in a private referendum held in all 650 constituencies across Britain for a cost of only £6.5 million.

To put that sum in perspective, compare it with the £20 million that the late James Goldsmith spent on his Referendum party in 1997. For that amount he could have held three referendums of his own, and had a really top-notch champagne party with the change. Goldsmith spent £7.5 million just on mailing leaflets to voters, and for all his efforts got only 3 per cent of the vote. How much more effective to have written a question, and sent out ballot papers with stamped addressed envelopes to every voter in the country. He could also have used some of his money to encourage voters to return their ballots, perhaps by holding a raffle with some multi-million pound prizes, so that everyone who voted entered the raffle.

Representative democracy made sense in past eras, when problems of distance and communication made it impossible for Members of Parliament to consult their electors on every intricate detail of national government. Even today, most of the general public are content to let their representatives get on with the day-to-day running of the country. But in the modern era of easy and instant mass communication, there is no excuse for not consulting the people on matters of great significance. The people should insist on their right to be heard, and for once not take ‘no’ for an answer.


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