David Cameron’s election campaign pledge ‘to hold a referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017’ was a significant (perhaps even a major) factor in the Conservatives winning the 2015 General Election. I’m sure he’s regretting it now. After watching his speech on 10 November at the Royal Institute of International Affairs Think Tank (a long title, and a long speech; I watched all 45 minutes) I am absolutely convinced that the referendum on the European Union is a mistake.
The theory says that a referendum is the ultimate in democracy: giving the people a direct choice on what happens. But there are two things wrong with this idea.
Firstly, the choice should be based on an informed opinion i.e. gathering as much information as possible, weighing the pros and cons of both sides, and coming to a conclusion. Will this happen with the in/out referendum on Europe? NO. Mr Cameron’s speech showed just how complex the topics that he wants to negotiate with the EU are. They are far too complex to be understood by Mr and Mrs English. And remember the topics he highlighted are negotiation points. The results will be both sides reaching an agreement on how the reforms can be implemented.
Mr Cameron says “It will be your decision whether to remain in the EU on the basis of the reforms we secure, or whether we leave”. But if those reforms are not understood in the first place, the negotiated results will certainly not be understood.
In the previous sentence Mr Cameron said “You will have to judge what is best for you and your family, for your children and grandchildren, ...” And that’s how most people will make the decision, what they think is best for them personally, which may, or most probably, not have anything to do with the reforms Mr Cameron wants to negotiate.
The second, more serious danger of holding a referendum on a topic as important as this is that the result can so easily be hijacked by a group with a predetermined opinion. We can already see this. The NO campaign is more vocal than the YES. OK, ‘empty vessels make the most noise’, but there are many examples of an opinion being said loud and often enough for it to become accepted as the truth, even though it’s far from it. And it’s not just one group on the NO side. There are those who never wanted to be in Europe, those who want to retain the British sausage, those who think civilisation ends at Dover, those who think that Britain is still a powerful, colonial empire, and numerous others. Each group may be small, but joined together, with a loud voice and a sprinkling of ‘celebrities’, many people could be persuaded to vote with them.
Towards the end of his speech Mr Cameron said “It will be your decision … Your decision. Nobody else’s. Not politicians’. Not Parliament’s. Not lobby groups’. Not mine. Just you. You, the British people, will decide. At that moment, you will hold this country’s destiny in your hands. This is a huge decision for our country, perhaps the biggest we will make in our lifetimes”. Yes, it is a ‘huge decision’, and that is exactly why Mr and Mrs English should not be holding this country’s destiny in their hands. We need an informed decision. Mr Cameron and the 650 members of parliament were elected to represent us, to get themselves informed about the issues affecting our lives, and to make decisions in the best interests of the majority of the people of Great Britain. Do they always do this perfectly? No, but surely it’s better that they do it than Mr and Mrs English voting based on what they think membership of the EU does or does not do for them personally. The government and the members of parliament cannot abdicate their responsibility and say ‘it’s the people’s decision’.
Is there still a chance to change the decision to hold a referendum? My reading of the situation is that there is. But that would be breaking an election promise! I think there might be more than one precedent for that.
Cancelling the referendum would have to be handled carefully, but perhaps this is an opportunity for our elected representatives. Yes, have negotiations with the EU (my gut feeling is that some other member states would be interested in some of the points Mr Cameron is making, and are allowing GB to take the lead). But after the negotiations, the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats should jointly tell the British people the reasons why Britain will stay in or leave the EU: wouldn’t that show real leadership and prove that all three parties have something in common: the best interests of the people of Great Britain. I personally think (and hope) the answer will be to stay in.
So come off the fence Mr Cameron and seize this chance to write your name in the history books.