Holy Writ

The EU referendum in the UK has resulted in a phenomenon that, quite frankly, baffles me: the mass worship of the Holy Plebiscite. The Referendum™ is held up as the purest epitome of the democratic process; the archetype that cannot be bettered. Holy Writ, The People Have Spoken, All Must Bow Down Before Its Glorious Perfection.

It’s all bollocks, of course.

A referendum is a singularly poor way of deciding policy in running a country. For a start, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s undemocratic since there is no accountability. As Tony Benn (sort of) put it: who do I kick out and how do I go about doing it? It’s no good saying we should blame the politicians — Holy Scripture demands that they do The Will Of The People, so why should we blame them if the people’s will turns out to be a load of ill-informed twaddle?

Update: here’s the Tony Benn quote referenced above:

In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person–Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates–ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.

If we are to be governed by plebiscite, how do I get rid of the plebs?

For another thing, it tends to reduce a complex issue to an overly simplistic question which, once it’s been answered, leaves a whole host of other questions to be asked, none of which will be answered by referendum, since that would be a logistic nightmare. Thus, you call a referendum, The People Speak, and then someone else has to sort out all the resulting messy details. It reminds of the despot: “Bring me strawberries”. “But, sire, it is November…”. “I care not, see to it”. Referendums are not democracy, they are despotism. Mob rule, at best. I once saw them referred to (I can’t remember where, now) as something like “the dictator’s hammer”.

Update: someone pointed me to this article:

I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum,” Clement Attlee said, “which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism.” In the spring of 1945 Winston Churchill was still prime minister, leading the wartime coalition, and Attlee, the Labour leader, was his deputy.

Then there’s the implicit (and monumentally false) assumption that the electorate are both informed and engaged with the issue. (This the same false assumption that is the fatal flaw in neoliberalism, of course.) Whereas the reality is that the electorate is made up of people who are bored, ignorant, looking to answer a different question, informed, engaged, bloody-minded, truculent, bright, intelligent, stupid…

When the margin is a mere 4%, you can have no confidence in the validity of that result as representing the true wishes of the people. Especially when you couple that with the number of people expressing regret that they voted for the winning side, you have to discount the result as being unsafe. The sheer scale of the impending disaster impels you to play safe and keep the status quo, rather than plunge into the unknown on such a flimsy basis.

Add in to the mix the admissions from the Leave camp that their promises and assurances were so much vapourware, and the very real consequences that are now starting to become apparent, and I would lay good money that another referendum this Thursday would see a large majority for remain.

There has been much good writing about this fiasco* over the last couple of days, but I’ll leave it with this from Alastair Campbell because it articulates pretty much exactly my thinking since I first heard the result.

Many are now saying we all need to pull together and make this work. I am not sure I agree. The country has voted on a totally false prospectus for a decision that has dramatic and damaging consequences, many as yet unseen. As the reality of that sinks in, the anger will grow. I believe the recognition of the sheer scale of the error that has been made will grow. The demands for a second referendum will grow. Or for a general election where an unequivocally pro-EU case can be put by an unequivocally progressive party. Right now it is hard to see where that party is or who are the people who could lead it. But without it, this country is in trouble and staring at rapid decline.

  • and by “fiasco” I mean, of course, “complete and utter clusterfuck of monumental proportions”.