27 May 2008

Separated by a Common Language

Are you going to vote 'no'?' asked an English friend of mine yesterday, seemingly out of the blue. 'Please vote 'no'. If you don't vote 'no' then we might never get a chance.'
'What are you talking about?' I asked, and then ventured a weary 'Lisbon?'
'The European Constitreaty.'
'Why do you call it that?'
'Because it's the Constitution, with a few of the words changed, and the mandatory flag -- though they still fly the flag and sing the anthem anyway!'
'It was never a Constitution,' I retorted, 'and should never have been called one. Doing so was a pretentious and absurd attempt to glorify it. It was only ever another treaty, and a far less dramatic one than the Treaty on European Union.'

'Well, the point is that every UK party promised we'd get a vote on it, and only one of them made any attempt to deliver on that promise.'
'They didn't, actually. Blair was forced into a corner by Rupert Murdoch, who said that he'd withdraw support for Labour if Labour didn't promise a vote on the version of the Treaty that had all the Constitutional stuff in. That version failed, following the French and Dutch votes. A new treaty based on that had to be renegotiated. No promises were made about this one.'
'That's not a technicality! It's a different thing!'
'It is different, but it's 95 per cent identical, according to virtually every European leader who signed it.'
'So what? You're 98 per cent identical with a chimp, but you're not one.'
'Me being 98 per cent similar to a chimp wasn't due to some overpaid bureaucrat signing a piece of paper.'
'You mean your Prime Minister?'
'In a darkened room. On his own.'

'I'm actually far happier with this than I was with the previous version. I'd been unhappy with the old preamble, and am glad it's been ditched. But why do you think you should have a vote on this?'
'Why do you have one?'
'Because I come from a modern country with a written constitution that demands that any possible adjustment to our constitution must be put to the people.'
'So it is a constitutional treaty.'
'In the sense that it might perhaps effect Ireland's own constitution, yes, maybe,' I conceded, 'but no more than Rome, the Single European Act, Maastricht, Amsterdam, or Nice. Rather less than Rome and Maastricht, in fact. Much, much less. But since the Supreme Court's Crotty Judgment in 1987, all European treaties have to go to a referendum in Ireland. It's a singularly bad way of ratifying treaties, in fact, since the vast majority of people won't read the things and wouldn't understand if they did!'
'Probably. But the fact is there was a cross-party pledge and two out of three have broken it.'
'Well, no, again, because it's a different treaty!'
'Ours is more identical because of the red lines.'
'What do you mean "more identical"? Everybody signs the same treaty.'
'The red lines. Exceptions. . . I think.'
'Those exceptions are part of the treaty. They have to be approved by other people. We have to approve your 'red lines' just as you have to approve ours.'

'For what it's worth, and this may interest you,' I continued, 'the Irish system of default ratification by referendum is in fact quite questionable. The Crotty judgment said that it'd be fine to ratify treaties by statute rather than by referendum provided that 'such amendments do not alter the essential scope or objectives' of the EU, and it's certainly arguable that the Lisbon changes don't alter what the EU is about. In fact, really all they do is hopefully clear up some of the clutter that makes it hard to do its job. However, the people have grown fiercely attached to their right to have their say on these treaties they haven't read, and any party that attempted to reverse the default position would be wiped out. In other words, the only real political rationale for us having a referendum on this matter is to prevent a backlash against the government. Curiously, though, the government parties are not allowed to enlist the resources of the state to campaign for the treaty.'
'Well, obviously. Or are your parties state-funded?'
'Not obviously at all. Until about ten years ago they could do so, and indeed doing so was really just a matter of political leadership. As things stand, the parties cannot enlist the resources of the state in any referendums.'
'It is political campaigning, though.'

'Do you have any idea of the sort of things we've had referendums on?'
'Probably really trivial matters that need resolution.'
'Ratification of European Treaties and of Irish acquiesence to the International Criminal Court, removing the constitutional ban on divorce, defining the status of the right to life of an unborn child relative to that of its mother, the right to Irish citizenship, the voting age, and the possibility of replacing our PR-STV system of voting with a 'first past the post' system, just as examples.'
'Those arent constitutional. Except the first two . . . and the last two . . . and the other three.'
'Now are you really saying that it should be impossible for a government minister to be interviewed by the national broadcaster about one of these things, backed fully by the government and the majority of members of our parliament as voted for by the people, without the national broadcaster having to go and find somebody to interview to put an opposing view?'

'Well the national broadcaster is another thing . . .'
'It's an arm of the state. It can't take sides, and can't be used to put forward the case of the government, without a counterbalancing view being put forward too.'
'It should be representative of the full spectrum of opinion.'
'Because otherwise it would be Pravda, the propaganda arm of the state. In many ways the BBC already is . . .'
'Too obvious an answer. And wrong too. Look, you say a full spectrum of opinion --'
'I said "representative".'
'So -- what -- someone from the extreme left, someone from the extreme right, someone in the middle?'
'No. Representing the views of the people, respecting people's understanding.'
'And how do you establish what the views of the people are?'
'Well it's not exactly numerical analysis. Use rules of thumb and opinion polls.'
'So if a referendum looks set to be passed by 95% of voters, with the remaining 5% being, shall we say, BNP types, do you go, well, they're the opposition on this issue, and give them a platform on the national broadcaster?'
'5% of the time. You don't choose your opponents in matters like that. All it does is encourage them, drives them underground.'
'Even so, do you give them a platform?'
'Depends how they conduct themselves on it doesnt it? Richard Barnbrook was given virtually no platform and he still made his way onto the London Assembly, yet now he has a platform he has shown himself for the rude, obnoxious lout he really is. Ultimately it is an argument against state broadcasting altogether, which as an argument I would fully endorse.'
'Well, oddly, I'm sure the European Commission would too, though I'd disagree.'

'Look, do you have any idea who the campaigners against European treaties are in Ireland?' I asked, 'For what it's worth, they always about 20% of the vote. Our opposition to EU treaties always comes from the same people, who reel off the same nonsense every single time. The few remaining socialists and communists in the land oppose them, Sinn Fein and other hardline nationalists oppose them, holier-than-thou Catholics oppose them, and a chunk of the Green Party -- the chunk that overlaps with the socialists and communists -- does so. Together they can yell and shout and roar emotive nonsense that while incorrect and usually contradictory nonetheless serves to get people to vote against the treaties, convinced that we'll lose our supposed neutrality, or our tax laws, or be forced to start butchering babies tomorrow.'
'So that's an argument against political debate then.'
'No, it's not, actually. And those people don't know the meaning of debate. Lying isn't debating. I'm just trying to see why you'd want this, that's all. It's a pain in the hole here, trying to make yourself heard over that hysterical shower of gobshites.'
'If they lie then it's the presenter's responsibility to challenge them on it. Of course not every presenter is as talented as Andrew Neil, sadly.'
'Posters. Leaflets. Newspaper articles. TV adverts. No presenters there. Look, let's put this simply: despite your claims about promises and such, at bottom you want a referendum on this so you can vote against it. That's certainly what you intend to do, yes? So why? Why would you vote against it?'
'Largely because I want this country to have the opportunity to make a de facto rejection of what the European Union has become: an expensive burden on the legal framework of the United Kingdom, and an affront to its sovereignty, instead of the trade bloc it was meant to be.'

'It was never meant to be a trade bloc -- why do you say that?'
'Well, that's what we entered into. The notion of a European President and Foreign Secretary is also horrifying -- particularly if Blair gets it.'
'No you didn't -- let's stay with the first point for a minute -- you signed the Treaty of Rome, same as the rest of us. I realise that the term 'perfidious Albion' is proverbial around the world, but why are you so keen to pretend you signed up to less than what the Treaty established?'
'The Treaty of Rome was a blank document encapsulated between a frontsheet and a signature page.'
'Rubbish. Not by the time Britain signed it. What does the first line of it say? The very first line? "Determined to establish the foundations of an ever closer union"! That's what you guys signed up to, same as us. Ever closer!
'In 1953. Mainly by people who aren't alive any more.'
'Signed up to by the British and the Irish in the early seventies, which is the relevant date from your viewpoint. And you've still got the same head of state! You signed up for ever closer union. The Common Market was only ever meant to be the first part of that. Everyone knew that.'
'Well, that's about the only function it's served remotely well as, and I'm not particularly sure it's serving the UK well any more.'
'Would you rather withdraw, then? That'd be okay, you know. It's not as if you're particularly constructive members of it. You're basically a fat kid sitting on the sidelines, saying you want to be on the team, but only if the team plays your way.'
'I dunno. But that's something I'd rather see decided at the parliamentary level, rather than at the EEC level.'
'So you'd trust your parliament with the decision to withdraw, but not with the decision to make things more efficient? A it happens, the Treaty provides you with a mechanism to withdraw.'

'It's not just about efficiency though is it? There's more in that treaty than efficiency measures.'
'It basically is, actually. There's not much more, really. It's ultimately a streamlining exercise. The current structures aren't designed for 27 countries and 450 million people.'
'It's not reasonable to use one policy to let a load of other ones through.'
'It tidies the commission, it makes the council more accountable, it makes the parliament more democratic, it gives the national parliaments an opportunity to vet proposed legislation in advance rather than being faced with facts on the ground. As for the Presidency and the Foreign Minsitry position, the second one really does little more than to merge two positions, while the Presidency effectively exists already and has done for years. All it does is replace the current six-monthly rotation system with a more stable two-and-a-half year system, which should obviate the need for things to stall with a new learning curve every few months . . . so what's bad about it?'
'I can't remember. I've mainly given up hope on it. I've just generally been very much anti-Europe since I learnt how much money they take away from us and waste, and how much of that "waste" is actually politicians taking it for themselves. And the loss of our sovereignty in general.'
'I'm pretty sure you gain far more from the EU than you lose. Besides, it's not as if you have a huge amount of faith in your own government's fiscal prudence, is it?'
'I seem to recall seeing a chart that had us second from bottom in terms of EU value for money. Oddly enough, Ireland was at the top.'
'Probably because we play the game, really. The Euro is a big factor too.'

'The thing about my government's fiscal prudence is that in two years I will be able to completely get rid of them, whereas getting rid of the EU government would involve a huge political coalition across the whole of Europe at the same time, and given that it's made up of coalitions of dozens of smaller parties. . . there's no real way to do it.'
'I'm not sure you can be so certain. They were elected with a huge majority last time despite getting just a third of the vote last time. They might get beaten by another party that will have only a third of the vote. Your system is a travesty of democracy, I'm afraid.'
'Tories are currently hovering above 40 per cent. They took Crewe and Nantwich four days ago, the 126th safest Labour seat.'
'Great, so you'll get a landslide despite being opposed by almost six out of every ten voters. Wonderful.'
'That's not exactly how the system works. We have the constituency link so everybody is in some way represented, even if it doesn't reflect 100 per cent on their viewpoints.'
'Meaning what?'
'Meaning that if the government wanted to turn Coventry into a reservoir, there's someone in the House of Commons who will fight to prevent that from happening.'
'Er, we have constituencies too, so I don't see why this is special.'
'The alternative is minority governments and coalitions which spent half their time in government in deadlock, meaning that no decisions get made, which can be seen across half of eastern Europe, or PR which means that you get wholly unaccountable politicians.'
'We haven't had a majority government since 1985 or so, and we certainly don't have deadlock. And who says they're unaccountable? In what sense? Well? I'm curious . . . I'm just saying, I've lived under and voted in two systems, and I think the British one is a joke. Complaints about Brussels being undemocratic always strike me as hilariously hollow when they come from a country where most voters are effectively disenfranchised.'
'I don't think it's perfect. It's far from perfect. But it's the best system there is.'

'No government has had a popular majority since 1931.'
'But there have been several changes in government -- popular by what definition anyway?'
'In the sense of you count the votes and see if anyone got more than half. In terms of votes, they've all been minority governments, with more people having voted for 'losers' than 'winners'. 64 per cent of voters didn't vote for Labour in 2005, 59 per cent didn't vote for them in 2001, and 56 per cent didn't in 1997. 58 per cent of voters didn't vote for the Tories in 1992, just as 57 per cent didn't in 1987 and in 1983, and 56 per cent didn't in 1979. It goes on . . .'

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