Category Archives: Referendum

Not That It Matters

For various reasons, we have created a division of Devonwriters (the name of the partnership within which I work) called Dartside Press. This is because the office is pretty close to the river Dart here in Devon and this division is going into publishing. We can afford to do this because of ebooks. To do so with printed books would be far too costly.

Even then there is a lot to learn and I decided that I wanted something simple on which to cut my teeth. The result is a compilation of some of the political stuff I wrote in 2011 and 2012 – suitable edited and embellished as required. It is called “Not That It Matters” for two reasons. The first is that it seems a pretty accurate title. The second is that it was the title of a delightful collection of essays written by A A Milne who, apart from his children’s books, was a brilliant writer in an era when writing styles were at their most elegant (a personal opinion, of course). Anyway, this was to doff my cap at him (and at his son near whom we once lived and who I knew slightly).

The book is priced at a very reasonable £1.83 but I am afraid is available from Amazon alone at the moment. I have another steep learning curve to climb before we publish in other formats but hope get there reasonably soon. Should you care to know more click here.

A Referendum on the EU

In The Times this morning there is (as on all Saturdays) an opinion column written by Matthew Parris. I have huge respect for Mr Parris (although I do not always agree with him) so I do not want the following to be interpreted as a criticism of him. Anyway, I felt moved to put up a comment and then to share it with you. Here is what I said:-

Mr Parris, you said, “Even though it is not true that we were voting then only on membership of a common trading area the stakes did seem more modest.”

Well, as one of those sufficiently stupid and ill informed as to believe that what we were signing up to was not an organisation that was a step towards a federal Europe but something far more modest – stupid enough so that when asked to organise the “Yes” campaign in the constituency in which I then lived I agreed so to do– I find the complete lack of any reference to the democratic process in your piece astonishing. Indeed much of my time in recent weeks seems to be devoted to trying to atone for what I now see was a monumental error on my part.

That is the bit that fusses me. Do we or don’t we live in a democracy? If we do, then the people deserve the right to determine our future relationship with Europe – and that has been denied them because neither the Tories nor Labour have been sufficiently united to fight an election on this issue (and that would be almost impossible with our political system).

I am not, perhaps surprisingly, convinced as to whether we should or should not leave the EU. I am, however, not only convinced but doing all I can to ensure that the people of the UK are given the opportunity to take that decision.

Some say that the electorate are too ill informed to take such a decision. To them I say two things.

First, nobody is sufficiently well informed to take that decision (all the “facts” available are no more than informed – and at times well informed – opinions for who can “know” what the world will look like in five, ten or twenty years?) and certainly not Parliament.

Second, is you deny the people the right to speak can you continue to call yourself a democrat? I think not.

Referendums and democracy – again.

Ian Holman (@yarmouthian) and I had a Twitter exchange the other day which I want to use to introduce this blog which will be about referendums and could well take us nowhere. It started with a comment from him that caught my eye.

IH: Seriously hope UKIP’s disgraceful poster campaign backfires. Blatantly pandering to the ignorant and uneducated.

RW: @yarmouthian Are you surprised?

IH: @Rodney_Willett Sadly not.

RW: @yarmouthian If we could have a quick referendum, it would remove the point of UKIP and that would be good. Yes?

IH: @Rodney_Willett My preference is not to have one but I agree it would kill off UKIP

RW: @yarmouthian What’s wrong with having one?

IH: @Rodney_Willett Gives the largely uneducated public a vote on a single issue which they don’t fully understand

RW: @yarmouthian It’s the same public that votes for our MP’s. Some thoughts here (this was a link to my blog) and I would welcome your views on that

IH: @Rodney_Willett Interesting piece and a referendum would resolve the issue either way, I agree. My fear of a referendum is that many will vote no for the wrong reasons, i.e. not on economic grounds but because they ‘don’t like foreigners’.

RW: @yarmouthian Yes, that is a problem but how much do we value democracy?

IH: @Rodney_Willett Interesting debate. If there was referendum on death penalty, for example, vote may be in favour. Democratic but a result of lack of understanding of rule of law etc. Again a reason for not liking votes on single issues.

RW: @yarmouthian Yes, I have blogged about that problem too. It was tight but the right result in the end. But if not the people then who?

IH: @Rodney_Willett Point taken & tricky to argue against. Prefer to avoid referendums & allow govt., elected on manifesto, to make decisions.

The problem is, I feel, that we are both right. Yes, the people should be able to take major decisions about the way they are governed. Yes, the people cannot be expected to be sufficiently well informed to be trusted with taking major decisions about the way they are governed. It really is impossible to object to either sentence so where does that leave us?

When Ian says that he prefers to allow a government elected on a manifesto to make decisions, he is making the assumption that all matters of importance can be included in a manifesto. That was pretty much the case as the nineteenth century morphed into the twentieth. Then government was involved in far fewer areas of life than it is today and the divisions between the parties were fairly clear cut – for or against free trade, for or against the concept of workers’ unions and so on.

The Whigs, the Tories and the newcomers on the scene, the nascent Labour party all knew why they existed, what they were fighting for and for whom. By today’s standards, some of the things that were being fought for were unacceptable (the Tories), radical but on an intellectual rather than an emotional level (Whigs or Liberals if you prefer) and totally justified if fuelled by righteous anger which could be destructive (Labour).

So, if you voted for a politician you knew what he (no she’s then) stood for and the tribe he represented. You get a good feel of that if you read Ken Follett’s brilliant novel, “Fall of Giants” which deals with the period leading up the Great War and the tensions between the classes at that time.

Nowadays it is far more complicated as government has become more and more involved in the micro-management of the country (a move I deplore but that is another matter). One party wants to reduce the top rate of income tax, another to raise the income tax threshold. One party wants to restructure the NHS and another to provide it with more resources (although failing to explain exactly from where they are to come). Frankly, manifestos have become more a list of aspirations than of carefully costed and thoroughly researched proposals for action.

Meanwhile, since all of the manifestos will contain things that everyone likes, things that everyone dislikes and more things that most people do not care about it becomes impossible to decide which party would be best for the country (or even for each individual voter). That’s a sweeping statement but is probably realistic. To make matters worse, very few people believe that the politicians have any real intention of taking note of what they said in their manifestos and very few people realise that changing circumstances can render certain manifesto promises unachievable. One things of Clegg and tuition fees and Macmillan saying, feelingly, “Events, dear boy, events”.

Then there are matters – the EU is a perfect example – where the divisions in opinion do not follow party lines. So these matters never appear in a manifesto and the people have no opportunity to express an opinion.

In the end, elections are fought on other grounds: the likeability of the leaders, how they come over on the telly, the record of the last government (or, to be more accurate, the perception regarding the record of the last government) and, even though outdated and probably foolish, old tribal loyalties.

When canvassing I would often be told, “Well, my father/mother always voted Conservative/Liberal/Labour so . . .” Such people rarely said LibDems, their parents being too old to have taken that merger to heart.

Even more depressing was, “Oh, I shan’t be voting, they’re all as bad as one another,” or words to that effect.

So, just how should we look to decide on the two most important issues facing us today – the make-up of the UK and its relationship with the EU?

Next time I will try to tackle that question. Meanwhile if you have any ideas, I would be delighted to hear from you (whether by comment here, email to or on Twitter).

The referendum for an independent Scotland

As have many people, I have been involved in the comment pages of the Times over the little matter of the referendum to determine or otherwise Scottish independence and the more views I read the more I worry about this referendum.

First let me declare my areas of interest (as should anyone commenting on or actively working within politics).

I approve of the concept of referendums to determine matters that cannot be resolved using representative democratic means. Indeed, I would like to see more of them (but not too many) at all levels of government from Westminster to the parish and town councils. So it is not the referendum per se that worries me.

I approve of decentralisation (as anyone who has followed any of my writing will know) so it is not the thought of an independent Scotland that worries me. Indeed, if that is what the Scots want then good luck to them.

So why do I find myself profoundly worried about this particular referendum? I think the answer is that I think it carries with it some serious flaws which I fear means that whatever the outcome there will be considerable social damage. So what are these flaws?

First I am bothered about the people entitled to vote. These include a large number of people with no Scottish history who happen to be living there at the “right time”. It is possible, in the event of a close result, for the independence of Scotland to be determined by a group of workers from (let us say) Poland who have no intention of remaining there for more than a few years. That worries me.

Second I am bothered about the people who are not entitled top vote. These are those with strong Scottish roots – even maybe with family in Scotland – who happen to be working elsewhere but who will have no say in the future of what they see as their country.

Thirdly I am bothered that the Scots are being offered a pig in a poke and nobody seems able to let the cat out of the bag. (No, that is not mixing metaphors as they are connected: the ‘pig’ was often a stray cat.) By that I mean that it is, I feel, totally wrong to vote first and negotiate afterwards. I see the problems of negotiating first but without knowing exactly where an independent Scotland would stand within the world, surely it is not possible to take a logical decision?

Do they not need to know what currency will prevail and who will be the lender of last resort if that currency is in difficulties? Do they not need to know whether or not they will be member of the EU or NATO? Do they not need to know what level of national debt they will be carrying?

Those are the big questions but there are plenty of others. All, however, are swept under the carpet. The response to the inevitable rejection by the Treasury and the three major parties in the UK that Scotland could not be a part of the pound Sterling was met by extraordinary responses – such as the claim that the English wanted to bully poor little Scotland into staying in the union.

Well, speaking as one of those English, I would be happy for Scotland to go her own way if that is what she wants but I’m damned if I want to trust her with the pound in my pocket and I really do not want her to do something that, after the negotiations have been concluded, they bitterly regret. Who would they blame? Their leaders? The leaders of rUK or the EU or NATO? Someone would be expected to take the blame.

Lastly I am worried by the passions that have been stirred up. The campaign in Scotland seems to be based more on hate than logic and I feel a backlash down here with more anti-Scots feelings than I have noticed in the past – ever. That cannot be good.



THe last few days have seen a lot of comments on various on-line editions of newspapers regarding the small matter of immigration from other EU countries into the UK.

Much of this is ill informed. Most of the people we take in do not come from other EU countries.

All of it, however is highly understandable and, whilst I do not always agree with the logic, I am with most of them in spirit. So what is this spirit thing that seems to be upsetting so many people? Well, my guess (it can be no more) is that at last people are thinking about the sovereignty of the UK Parliament. In other words, it is not so much immigration per se that is making people angry (I typed “cross” and realised it had to be stronger than that) as the feeling that our government has no control over EU immigration or the way these people are treated once they arrive.

If they come from somewhere else, our government has the ability to say “no” and, sometimes, to say “sorry but you do not qualify for such-and-such a benefit”. We may not be happy at the decisions the government takes but at least we can vote them out if we get cross enough – which we can’t do with the EU monster. So why the “sometimes”? Well, these guys from any country can, and do, appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn decisions made by our government and judiciary.

And that, of course,raises other questions about sovereignty because (and this is another area which is much misunderstood) the ECHR has nothing whatsoever to do with the EU and we could opt out of that tomorrow if we wanted to.

Where does this lead me? Well, to a referendum to ask the electorate of the UK two questions:

EU – in or out?

ECHR (in this case the European Convention on Human Rights) – in or out?

Meanwhile, from deepest Devon, it seems to me that all our rulers are doing is “shaking it all about”.

Economics versus politics

There is a letter in the Independent today over the signatures of the following: Roland Rudd, chairman, Business for New Europe; Dame Helen Alexander, chairman, UBM; Sir Win Bischoff , chairman, Lloyds Banking Group; Sir Richard Branson, founder, Virgin Group; Sir Roger Carr, chairman, Centrica; Sir Andrew Cahn, vice chairman, Nomura, public policy EMEA; David Cruickshank, chairman, Deloitte LLP; Lord Davies of Abersoch, vice chairman, Corsair Capital; Guy Dawson, director, ASA International; Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, deputy chairman, Scottish Power; Sir Adrian Montague, chairman, 3i; Nicolas Petrovic, CEO, Eurostar; Sir Michael Rake, chairman, BT; Anthony Salz, vice chairman, Rothschild; Sir Nicholas Scheele, chairman, Key Safety Systems Inc; Sir Nigel Sheinwald, non-executive director, Shell; Sir Martin Sorr elL, chief executive, WPP; Malcolm Sweeting, senior partner, Clifford Chance; Bill Winters, CEO, Renshaw Bay.

Two links for you: the letter itself and an article on the subject. In the printed edition that I saw, the headline was, “Leaving EU would be economic disaster, say business elite”

These leaders accuse eurosceptics of putting politics before economics. They are,of course, right. More to the point, so are the eurosceptics. Let me explain

Far be it for me to pit my brains against these captains of commerce but there are two problems with what they have to say. The first deals with the economic argument which I find unconvincing – probably because I have read and studied the arguments put forward from both sides and find all of them momentarily totally convincing. Thus I am forced to conclude that nobody actually knows anything and that everybody – including these people – are purely speculating. It is, I feel, I possible to know whether in, say, ten old fifteen years time the UK would be better off or worse off were it to remain in the EU.

To a large extent that will depend on two factors well outside the control of the UK or, indeed, the leaders in the other countries in the EU: what happens to the global economy and war (should there be one of international significance, which – with a heavy heart – I fear is more likely than not). Yes, if the UK leaves the EU it will lose influence within that organisation but you could equally well argue that membership of the EU (especially if the euro collapses or there are serious disagreements in the union) would reduce the UK’s influence elsewhere.

So, I am not inclined to take too much notice of the leaders of commerce who are making these statements. They are, after all, made from their perspective which is a very different one from that of the ordinary people in the UK and that takes us to the political arguments.

Basically there are two groups of people here who are concerned about our relationship with Europe. I find myself at odds with the first group: these are the people who feel that the UK can no longer cope with immigration. At odds but deeply sympathetic. Without immigrant labour prepared to work for wages that are less than many can receive on benefits we would not be able to harvest all our crops or see many other thankless and menial jobs undertaken. This, of course, is a harsh criticism of the mentality of dependence that has been engendered by the welfare state but you should not blame the people who see no point in working for less that they receive from the state. But, and this is often overlooked, it is not really these people who find themselves threatened by the immigrants but those who feel they no longer belong in communities in which they have lived all their lives and find themselves surrounded by those speaking in a foreign language, signs they cannot understand and shops totally alien to them. Yes they may well vocalise this disquiet by talking about “taking all our jobs” which is a nonsense but these people do not have the captains of industry speaking for them – they have nobody speaking for them except the hard right. Why has that been allowed to be the case? The real truth is that we are all immigrants even if some of us have been here a long time and without immigrants refreshing us, we would not have been the vibrant, thriving nation we were and could – and should – be again.

The others, and with these I totally identify, are the ones who continue to believe that democracy (for all its faults and failings of which I am horribly aware) is the only reasonable form of governance available to man: the only form of governance which is able to give all – rich and poor, clever and stupid, industrious and lazy, good and bad, useful and useless – a say in the way in which their society is run. This, to me, is more important than the economy for a nation divided unto itself can never be a reasonable place in which to live no matter how rich it may be unless, of course, you are one of the tiny elite sharing the bulk of that wealth.

And the EU has turned out to be fundamentally anti-democratic.

Should we stay in the EU? For a long time I have felt that the only way we could resolve that would be by using a referendum and I have striven for that for a long time. Oddly I have remained unsure as to how I would vote in such a referendum until quite recently. It was the realisation that those who were predicting the economic future to be bleak if we left the EU were really using guesswork rather than actual facts that made me reasonably sure that I would vote for leaving.

The views of these nineteen “business elite” have provided the final push – we must leave the EU before the ordinary folk of this country become slaves to pure materialism.

At the end of the letter is the following sentence: The benefits of membership overwhelmingly outweigh the costs, and to suggest otherwise is putting politics before economics. The first part of that sentence I believe to be no more than an opinion (and you could say “they would say that, wouldn’t they?”) and the second suggests the correct priority: politics first and economics second.

Democracy? What democracy?

What with the rows about the EU and a possible vote on making that a fixture (although not a binding vote – no vote on the EU is ever binding unless it achieves the “right” answer) which is tearing the Tory party apart (or so say some) and gay marriage which will “make a total sham of heterosexual marriages and defile, deride and undermine all of us who have taken solemn vows of constancy” (as one person – whose name I can’t remember – put it) and the UKIP fiasco in Edinburgh following that party’s brilliant results in the County Council Elections (brilliant whether or not you support them), I feel the need to ask that question.

What is “democracy”?

Well, according to Wikipedia it “is a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Democracy allows eligible citizens to participate equally—either directly or through elected representatives—in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. It encompasses social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.”

Webster, meanwhile, keeps it simple: “government by the people; especially rule of the majority” with a second definition reading, “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections”.

Note the difference. Of the two Wikipedia has a better eye on history: certainly the early Greek democracies represented a small proportion of the population (they limited the franchise to “citizens” with no financial or property restrictions) and, to be fair, even the USA resisted universal suffrage until recently whilst here that happened barely a hundred years ago.

You could say that it continues to be the case: we have decided that you can vote from your eighteenth birthday so all those younger than that are dis-enfranchised (which is not to suggest that they should be otherwise: a line has to be drawn somewhere).

But it’s not as simple as that. Even the purest form of democracy which must be, I suggest, a referendum can deliver a perverse and anti-democratic result. For a start you have to decide who is eligible. Consider the question of Scotland becoming an independent nation. At first sight you would say, “all those registered to vote in Scotland” would be entitled to vote. That excludes Scots who happen to be working in England on a temporary basis but for long enough to be on an English Register. Likewise it would include a lot of people temporarily living in Scotland (on oil rigs, perhaps) but who will be returning home in the near future. Furthermore, it would impact on the rest of the UK. Should not they have a say? And on the EU (for an independent Scotland could not remain a part under present rules) so how about all the citizens of the EU countries? Quite, a stupid suggestion but a line has to be drawn somewhere.

Then, having drawn a line with which everyone is happy, we come to count the votes. This could be about anything but let us go for the referendum where we are asked, “do you want the UK to remain a member of the EU?” There are 45,000,000 eligible to vote: 13,720,000 vote “yes”; 13,721,000 vote “no”; 17,599,000 do not vote. The “no’s” have it. Such a result is quite possible and the idea that the future of the UK should be determined in such a way does make the blood run cold. Even so, as I have said many times, I do not believe we have another way available to settle this matter. I feel a need to cross many fingers.

Then there is representative democracy. I have explained in other places the way this leaves about 45% of the population with absolutely no say in the running of their country – the people living in “safe” seats who did not support the party in power (which includes those who voted for another party or did not vote at all). Since we tend to switch parties fairly often, most people in a safe seat will be in that position for a part of their lives while about 20% will be sidelined no matter what happens. Nevertheless, I would argue that for most of the time in normal circumstances there is no reason why representative democracy should not work. It ceases so to do in extraordinary matters (such as the relationship between the UK and the EU) and when, as – regrettably – government tries to interfere in matters where it would be best if it didn’t. We should also remember that a government such as ours actually has very limited powers (no matter how much it puffs itself up) and big, global business has a greater impact on our lives (the government has done all it can to keep fuel prices down but has been defeated by the global giants who actually control the oil markets).

Then there is smallism. This is a term that you may not understand but it comes down to taking decisions at as local a level as possible. Think of the “witan” which was a meeting of the wise men (wita – wise) in Anglo-Saxon times. The population in England at that time was at or about three million and the country was broken up into eleven areas. Each area had its own king, ruling over a population of a medium sized modern city such as Plymouth. He would call a meeting of his wise men – the witan or witenagemot – to discuss matters with him and then he would take the final decision. It worked most of the time but these “wise men” had one advantage over us: if enough of them felt the decisions being made were wrong they merely replaced the king. However, the idea was a good one. At a very local level you can gather together the people who have an interest in some decision, hear what they have to say and then take a decision based on your understanding of the general mood but – and this is critical – taking into consideration what is needed by minority groups in the society.

It is the minority groups that suffer most in a democracy. They can never expect the consensus to be on their side. They can be sure that the extreme and vociferous “antis” (and there are always some of them) will be their enemies. One of the blessings of representative democracy is that MP’s can listen to all sides of an argument and then decide on a course of action that is as fair as possible even if they know that the majority of the people would not agree with their decision. Parliament should not always follow public opinion but lead it when that is appropriate. Two examples would be the abolition of capital punishment and the decision to make seat belts compulsory: both went against the grain of public opinion at the time.

The sad fact is that this government seems to spend more time listening than it does doing. Thus it comes over as weak and indecisive when it is probable that neither charge is fair. All of which begs the question: since the way we do things seems to be less than brilliant, what can we do to put matters right? I wish I knew the answer to that one.