Thursday, January 24, 2013

It's a "yes/no" question, Minister

And so, we're getting another referendum. Possibly. Maybe. In time.

I remember those hazy, lazy far off days when the chances of Britain getting a referendum on anything was dismissed as pinko dreaming. We don't do referendums, the Establishment sneered, that's European.

"This is Britain," went the line. "We have unelected, unaccountable political appointees in the House of Lords and that's the end of it,".

These days there is nothing which can't be resolved without the mention of the word "referendum". It's radical, it's representative, it's hip and now and acknowledging the power of the people and all the rest. Crucially the referendum as concept is sewing itself within the fabric of our unwritten constitution - thanks to the e-petition scheme and a combination of Facebook and plummeting confidence in the political system holding referendums  is considered the strongest tool of all inside democracy's garden shed. You can't go too far into the nightmare world of On-Line Comment Sections without seeing people called WhitePower84 or Orwell Was Right directing you to their e-petition against or for the kneejerk demand du jour, and I think it's fantastic that we're walking down this particular road. "Referendum as threat" would make a cracking dissertation.

I recall when the very notion of Britain embracing the referendum was sneered at for being unsuitable. Holding a public plebiscite was an act which others did - the Swiss, for example, with their four languages and political neutrality and chocolate and giving Celine Dion her big break. Critics argued that a general election was the only referendum Britain needed, as we transferred our right to have a say to those MPs who sat at Westminster, that somehow holding a secondary vote was invalidating the result of that election.

Things changed with the Blair government, who gave Scotland and Wales the right to support devolution, and since then the Welsh have given a further thumbs up to awarding extra powers at Cardiff Bay. Voters in Scotland will soon have a say on leaving the Union, perhaps the greatest sign of the politician's acknowledgement of the power of the referendum. "I act upon what the people say" and all that.

Of course the greatest example of the referendum on these isles was the AV referendum. I still shudder at the memory.

The "no" vote on voting change was a kick in the constitutionals, and no mistake. Voting reform was knocked back a generation. The campaign was not edifying, nor mature, and those who campaigned on either side revelled in behaviour unthinkable in a general election.

"No" supporters used the most shallow and cynical campaign tricks - "This baby needs a life support machine and a cute little puppy and hugs from his mother, not a new voting system YOU MONSTER" - which was nonetheless successful. The power of the repeated meme and all that, and something which must be combated by "In" campaigners next time round. Anything which was good for the defeat of AV will be considered good for the Scottish Independence vote too, and that's all for the worse in the longer term.

If Cameron does go to the country after 2015 with an EU vote the difficulties faced by the Yes2AV experience will come back with a vengeance. Those in favour of the change couldn't agree on a theme until a few days before polling day, and even when there was a hint of a united message, some of the adverts used by them accurately described a voting system which was anything but AV. Similar mess-ups both in Scotland and the EU votes would deliver defeats before midnight.

Britain's future is within the EU, that's my view now  as it's been for years. I'm not particularly confident about living in a country which purposely isolated itself from the rest of the trading world at a time when every other major power is doing precisely the opposite. If there is to be a referendum, we "In" supporters must learn from the lessons of the AV disaster. We have to agree on a simple, single message, and use that message alone. We must avoid  falling into the trite, over-emotional garbage of the No campaign, which effectively distorted the pro-message without having to do anything. Crucially there has to be meat to share round years before the vote is even announced, as the AV campaign had nothing in the cupboard beyond an old tin of golden syrup, some rice and an old -fashioned manual tin opener.

The EU vote can be won because Britain needs to remain within the club for the greater, long-term good of both country and region. It would be a folly of ridiculous proportions to pretend that a Britain alone is a Britain strengthened, the kind of isolationist, borderline xenophobic thinking which permeates the "Better Off Out" brigade. But just as with the AV vote, it doesn't take much to gain traction with peoples emotions. A "yes" to the EU is not a "no" to Britain. It's not patriotic to support building a wall between these islands and Germany for the sake of feeling good about defeating bendy bananas and all the rest of it.

Saying "no" to AV was a constitutional disaster, putting back real reform of our voting system a generation or more, and slamming shut any real chance of improvements to the Commons, the Lords and so much more. An "out" vote in 2017 at the EU referendum would be much, much worse - economically, socially, politically. If there's anyone worried about how the campaign might go, look back at the AV experience, take it, hold it close, cherish it......and then throw it into the sun.