Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Another "democrat" speaks

Steve Richards, political correspondent for The Independent, has responded to the debacle of the North-east referendum by arguing that politicians shouldn't avoid difficult questions by asking voters to decide the answers.

On the surface, he writes in today's edition, referendums appear to resolve everything: a simple question is posed and voters respond with an equally straightforward answer. In reality, though, referendums resolve nothing.

Richards' thesis is quite intriguing. In his mind, the decisive "no" vote in the North-east referendum was not as clear as it seems. Some voters wanted an assembly with more powers, and thus rejected Prescott’s schemes because not enough powers were on offer; others simply wanted to "stick two fingers up" at politicians; others feared dominance by one part of the region over the others.

The implications of the result, therefore, are a muddle. "Referendums are never the end of the matter. They hold out the enticing prospect of addressing thorny issues, but never do so."

As regards the EU constitution, in actuality, Richards maintains, the referendum is being used as an excuse for postponing or avoiding awkward arguments. We are not having a referendum because the government is confident of the pro-European sentiment in Britain. We are having one for precisely the opposite reason, that it lacks confidence about the pro-European case or at least in putting the case until another election is safely out of the way.

Thus, concludes Richards, there is only one clear lesson from last week's poll: "political leaders should avoid the promise to hold referendums." The promise, he writes, "gets them out of short-term holes, but the prospect of holding the unpredictable polls creates bigger problems that do not go away."

How fascinating is this view. Richards is a confirmed Europhile and like so many of his ilk, is extremely ill at ease with the prospect of democracy in action. So democracy is a messy business, and messages are always mixed. But is that a reason for doing away with it? For Mr Richards, it seems, it is.

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