Sunday, 8 June 2008

Referenda and plumbers

The Irish referendum reveals precisely what would happen should the UK decide to ever hold referendum of its own. There is a very good argument against referenda in a representative democracy.

We send our representatives to Parliament to consider, debate and legislate on issues where we would otherwise have to devote an enormous amount of time ourselves. Most people would like someone to do that on their behalf and then get the opportunity to sack them if they don't think that they have performed.

This is not as some pro-referendum advocates suggest a lack of trust in the people. Quite the opposite. It is though an acknowledgement that the majority of people would rather spend their time doing something else other than reading European treaties, say. We could all become plumbers, but surely it's better to employ someone else to do it? Life's just too short.

Now, taking the plumbing analogy a bit further, what if you hire a succession of plumbers and none of them can competently fix your leak? Perhaps you'd be tempted to train yourself in plumbing- after all the professionals can't do the job properly so why not give it a go yourself?

This is basically the more sophisticated Euro-sceptic position. Representative democracy is fine but in the case of European issues it's dysfunctional and the leak needs fixing so let's do it ourselves. Quite why representative democracy is only dysfunctional in this policy area- why we only have a leak in this particular pipe- is not clear so the argument feels a tad instrumental but let's gloss over that.

So you've got your leak (or so you think), you've given up on plumbers, and you're ready to go for it. Ah, but now you need training or let's call it information. You look for a book with the answers or to enlist on a course at a local community college but something starts to concern you. Instead of handy professional help you get all sorts of confusing answers and it's impossible to know what to believe.

Just say you decided to use the web. Let's look at some of the information provided in the case of Irish Lisbon Treaty Referendum. For example, take the following post on a popular Irish website:

Any trained plumber can tell you that the arguments in the link above are misleading, specious, scare-mongering, outdated, or just plain deceitful. My personal favourite is the assertion that the Lisbon Treaty shock, horror enshrines EU law as superior to Irish law. This has been true since the Irish joined the EEC and the whole thing couldn't work without it- what is the point of making agreements in Europe that are not enforceable?

We could dismiss the '8 reasons to vote no' as just poor and inaccurate argument. The problem is that our inveterate trainee plumber actually confronts this type of argument from a whole group of people so the arguments, preying on the information gap that exists about EU affairs, completely skew understanding about the issues at hand. Euroscepticism is a coordinated and deliberate attempt to deceive. It makes the type of genuine public debate needed for a referendum almost impossible.

So I'm afraid Euro-sceptics undermine their own argument for a referendum. By acting in a way that is designed create a atmosphere of hostility based on mis-information they make holding a referendum very difficult indeed.

What's our guy with a leak to do? Well, there's no easy answers unfortunately. Probably best to make sure that he really does have a leak, assess how serious it really is, get a bit of basic information, ask around for a plumber he can trust, keep a watchful eye on the plumber, and hope that does the trick.

Post script: For more delusional ramblings on the issue, I'd recommend this article in the Sunday Business Post. The journalist clearly feels the need to dust down his law degree. But I really do enjoy his 'how dare they ask me a question of this importance' argument. He's pro-European in the same sense you meet 'lifelong Labour voters' who tell you election after election why they are not voting Labour this time!!!!

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