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 email@example.com or on Twitter).