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Rod Liddle

Whoever invented the referendum deserves a kicking

They are not ‘democracy at work’ — they are a recourse for tyrants

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

My favourite quote of the year so far comes from the author Fay Weldon. ‘If this were an all-woman society,’ she said, ‘we wouldn’t have television. We’d just have lots of nice cushions.’ Fay was making the point that it’s men who do all the -inventing and most of the work. She has since profusely apologised for this remark and others made during the same ‘off the cuff’ interview — almost certain proof, then, that what she said is largely true.

But only largely, Fay. Without women we might not have discovered either of the unpleasant radioactive elements polonium and radium — both stumbled upon by Marie Curie, who was habituated (unwisely) to carry chunks of them around in her apron pocket. But that’s not all. A woman was responsible for inventing the disposable nappy, apparently, and bizarre though it might seem, the actress Hedy Lamarr devised a complex guidance system for torpedoes, ensuring that the radio signals were not jammed by the Nazis. She also invented a tablet that would make drinks carbonated, and furthermore was quite fit in a certain 1940s kinda way, hair swept back, smouldering expression etc. Helluva girl.

But that’s about it, for women and inventing stuff — so Fay was more right than wrong. I once replied to an online query about why men, rather than women, were usually the derring-do heroes in children’s fiction with the suggestion that this was in order to make the stories seem much more realistic. Children are not easily fooled. All hell broke loose, much as it did with Fay’s comments — the greater the resistance to a statement, the more likely to be true it is.

I am not sure about cushions, though. Women do enjoy sitting on them, for sure. But I suspect that it was a talented homosexual man who invented them. Perhaps especially the profusion of wholly pointless and slightly irritating cushions you find on middle-market hotel beds, alongside a nasty piece of chocolate and a note to the effect that breakfast stops serving at ten.


I do not know who invented the referendum as an instrument of governance, but whoever it was deserves a kicking. Probably the Swiss, who have been using them since the mid-1500s and are also responsible for inventing that other jewel in the crown of post-industrial capitalism, money-laundering. And I would guess almost certainly a Swiss woman, given the mimsy and mistaken premise that referendums are ‘democracy at work’ — when in fact they have generally been used by tyrants, such as Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, to dubiously legitimise their will. They are also a recourse for weak governments which are either hopelessly divided or do not have a clue what they are supposed to be doing. Tyrants or incompetents. And as often as not, an abrogation of responsibility on the part of the people we pay good money to decide such things.

There was a particularly fatuous referendum in the Netherlands this week, concerning the European Union’s decision to enhance trade links with Ukraine in the wake of Russian aggression in the east and south of the country. Yes, you can imagine how this must have galvanised the Dutch people, as they marched proudly along the edge of dykes and through the tulip fields, past windmills full of little mice with clogs on, in order to register a strong protest for, or against, preferential trade tariffs on the import of Ukrainian beetroot or something.

But thish ish not really about Ukraine, the Dutch Eurosceptic right averred — it ish about throwing a spanner in the works of the European Union, because this trade treaty has been ratified by all 27 states of the EU. Spare us. I can just about see that a referendum that asked: ‘Would you like to pay much less in taxes or would you like to subsidise feckless bone-idle halfwits for the rest of your life?’ might have some purchase in the minds of the electorate, here or in Hilversum. But this devious and arcane issue?

The Dutch had their referendum because of a national stipulation that petitions which gain more than 300,000 names must be put to a plebiscite. This is a recipe for direct rule by the very worst people in the -country — the relentlessly involved, the people who know that they know best, the endlessly clamourous liberal (or leftish) urban middle class, who spend their entire lives whipping up support for one or another piece of virtue–signalling agitprop.

Not a day goes by without my email inbox filling up with fabulously stupid injunctions from organisations such as Change.org or 38 Degrees, insisting that I append my name to a petition right now to encourage the migration here of many more people who wish to blow us to smithereens with suicide belts full of Semtex. They all get upwards of 300,000 names — or half a million names for those who wanted to ban Donald Trump from ever visiting the UK, to take a particularly egregious example. And if there were a plebiscite every time, they would win — because nobody else would bother to turn up at the polling station.

I assume these people have so much time on their hands to indulge in this sort of stuff because they are employed either in the state sector or the third sector, where the working week is congenially shorter than in the private sector. The fact that they know less than nothing is not considered important — this is direct democracy, you cynic! I wonder if it would be slightly fairer to simply use opinion poll findings — so, no more immigration, the return of the death penalty and no gay marriage. Of course the opinion polls are deeply flawed. But not anywhere near as flawed as a plebiscite in which only one tiny tranche of the population is remotely interested.


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