Wednesday, October 17, 2007

An essentially bogus argument

So, should we have a referendum on the European Constitution? It is, I suppose, an important question, and the arguments brought on both sides are largely interesting and sometimes even valid. But they are also, almost entirely, bogus.
The prime argument in favour of a referendum is pretty straightforward. The Treaty is structurally identical to the Constitution, and all major parties pledged a referendum on that. QED. This is less, of course, an argument for the merits of referenda in general, or even this one in particular, than it is a statement of political fact. Wriggling out of this is tricky.
But they've tried, of course they have. And all the arguments brought as to why there shouldn't be a referendum are false. Not perhaps intrinsically, but because they are made in fallacious ways by people who are least qualified to make them.
Lets ignore the claim that this document is a different document to the original European Constitution: it isn't. Where the Constitution brought European Treaties together into one over-arching document, the Treaty simply incorporates them by reference. The effect is the same, except that it makes the Treaty impossible to read - a feature, not a bug.
So, what's the first argument against a referendum? That referenda are not a part of British democracy - we live in a Parliamentary democracy, read Edmund Burke for the classic defence of this position. Parliament is the place for proper scrutiny of such matters. Linked to this is the Ken Clarke position: referenda never answer the questions asked. "You ask the public for a decision on bi-metallism, and they reply 'Throw the rascals out!'" as the hush-puppied one said. Both these are fair points. But not when made by the party that has brought referenda on London mayors, on devolved assemblies, on devolution in Scotland and Wales, on the peace process in Northern Ireland. All these referenda were said to be necessary because they involved a transfer of sovereignty. So does, par excellence, the European Constitution. The argument doesn't fly, not from them.
What else? That Britain has defended its red lines? That's an argument why the Treaty is a good one for Britain, not why it should not be decided by public vote. You think it's a good treaty? Excellent, then winning a referendum should be easy. If you think the Treaty is bad for Britain, then why are you even considering signing it?
The arguments against a referendum are flawed beyond measure. But so, in truth, is the argument for a referendum. Those of us who want a referendum don't do so because we believe that the measure is so important that it can be decided only by a plebiscite. We do so because we know that we would win it. The only truthful position is that those in favour of a referendum are opposed to the Treaty, and those we are in favour of the Treaty are opposed to a referendum. High and philosophical arguments about the sovereignty of Parliament, or the mandate of the people is so much nonsense.

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