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Denis MacShane wonders whether the time has come to ban referendums.
Can we have a referendum to end referendums? Barely was the predictable result declared on the AV plebiscite than the cry arose to have one on Scottish independence. It is not clear whether those born in Scotland like me can vote. Others are campaigning for an in-out referendum on Europe.
I began my political life opposing the then highly popular call for a referendum on restoring capital punishment. It would have resulted in a Yes vote, and the Birmingham Six would have been judicially killed. In the early 1970s however, Britain didn’t do referendums. Margaret Thatcher, rightly, called them “a device of demagogues and dictators”. She was quoting Clement Attlee, Labour’s greatest-ever prime minister, who lived through the plebiscite-mad 1930s, when referendums were used to endorse populist reactionary politics across Europe.
We don’t ‘do’ dictators, but adult intelligent politicians morphed into demagogues in the weeks before the AV vote as they screamed each other down with mutual insults. Both sides stretched truth to breaking point. The referendum was financed by secret hedge fund Tories or dubious electoral campaign groups that would financially benefit from a Yes vote.
The cause for this unhappy fiasco is the iron law of all plebiscites, namely that they reduce a complex argument to a single issue. Plebiscites and populist politics go hand in hand. That lesson should have been learnt after the last national referendum, the granddaddy of them all, the 1975 plebiscite on staying in the European Community. The vote was a clear Yes. But did it settle the matter? Within a decade, Labour was showing its contempt for the 1975 decision by calling for a withdrawal from Europe in its 1983 manifesto.
Two decades later, and the Conservatives underWilliam Hague were refusing to accept the 1975 referendum result when he told voters that if a Labour government stayed in the EU, “Britain would become a foreign land”.
Until 1975, Britain was a plebiscite-free polity. Like the United States, Anglosphere democracy has always been wary of populist referendums to settle decisions that affect every citizen, which should be decided by Congress or the Commons. Sadly Labour gave away this principle to appease its Bennite left in the 1970s. There were utterly spurious referendums after 1997 on devolution in Scotland and Wales, and to endorse peace in Northern Ireland – noble causes, but already with a clear parliamentary majority endorsing them.
The Liberal Democrats have always insisted on referendums as a magic carpet to better democracy, though that view may now need revision.
David Cameron promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty but sensibly dropped the pledge once in government. Can he and other party leaders learn from the AV plebiscite and decide that parliamentary deliberation has served Britain and America well over decades, indeed centuries, and should not be replaced by populist plebiscites?
A law banning plebiscites might seem antidemocratic, but would be the first step to making the Commons the place where the nation’s decisions are debated and decided.