06 February 2008

Romantic Referenda

I mentioned the other day how Brother the Elder has opined that the Eurovision song contest is 'a much preferable way to learn geography than a World War'.

This got me thinking about the infamous 'Tory Atlas of the World', originally published in the Spitting Image annual, and nicely preserved for posterity over at the wonderful Strange Maps website, well worth exploring if you ever get a chance.

Obviously meant as a joke, in case anyone squints at the small print and then starts accusing me of racism, the map isn't wildly off the chart as a caricature of a certain mindset that I've come across more than a few times in England, both in terms of its arrogance and its ignorance.

It's not an exclusively English phenomenon either, of course, or even an exclusively British one. The next few months are going to be funny ones in Ireland, as we precede a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty with a national debate laced with sturdy doses of arrogance, selfishness, xenophobia, and ignorance. It's already started, the early skirmishes already seeing the air thick with volleys of lies and half-truths; it's only going to get worse.

And of course, all the time the British press will be watching, with the anti-European brigade whining about how it's unfair that the UK isn't having a referendum on the EU Constitution when Ireland is getting one and Blair had promised them one. This is despite the fact that the Treaty isn't the same as the Constitution, despite the fact that Blair's promise had referred to the Constitution rather than the Treaty that's been modelled on it, and despite the fact that we're only having a referendum in Ireland on the topic because our Constitution demands that we do so.

Look, referendums are astoundingly bad ways of approving these things. European treaties are enormous, dense, complex documents. There's no way that the average person has the time or the ability to read even one of them, without getting into their tendency to build on previous treaties. Our democracies are representative rather than direct in nature: we elect people to do this kind of work for us.

If we want to reclaim some of that power, fine, that's laudable, but we need to remember that ill-informed opinions aren't worth crap, and opinions informed purely by polemical claims fall into that category. In other words, before people go demanding referenda on these things, they should ask themselves whether they're willing to actually read the things on which they'll be passing judgment.

There can be a tendency in England to romanticize referendums, which makes sense considering how exotic they must seem to a population reared on a crude first-past-the-post competition every few years. I think they've got a vital role to play in any vibrant democracy, but it has to be admitted that they're very blunt implements, spectacularly ill-suited to the dissection and evaluation of treaties.

That's a job for a scalpel, not an axe.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Apart from the name what is the difference between the constitution and the treaty? As far as I can see, absolutely none whatsoever.

On this subject, yesterday Gordon Brown's lawyer declared that Gordon's "manifesto promises are worthless".