I don’t understand the Lisbon Treaty. I’ve read it. It’s 272 pages long, and details lots of roles, rules, and competences for various institutions throughout its length. It’s not that the language is beyond comprehension, but the implications of some of the terms used, and the subtle significances of what are important inclusions and exclusions pass me by.
However, last week, over 1.7million Irish voters passed their judgment on the document. The repercussions for Europe are real; subject to the Czech Republic and Poland, the Lisbon Treaty will finally come into force, bringing about a European President, and numerous other changes – but you’d have to pore through the document to find details on those. So how were the Irish voters to reach a reasoned and informed conclusion?
Referenda entail large media campaigns. Politicians can be allowed to abandon their party whip to encourage the people to vote their way. Adverts and petitioning similar to General Election fare are common. Supporters of referenda highlight the massive attention this draws to the issue. It’s true. Both sides are forced to substantiate their arguments and convince the public of the benefits of their stance, meaning the public are engaged in a debate which would otherwise be held separately from them.
In terms of the actual issue, thorough, strenuous and prolonged debate in a referendum can be said to draw out all the flaws in the arguments of either party. This constructive debate is surely beneficial to all, and when voting day arrives, the public will can prevail.
Or so goes the theory. In reality, this ‘engagement’ is questionable. Though holding a referendum raises the likelihood that the people will discuss and consider an issue, there is always the strong chance that the slickest campaign with the biggest political endorsements will win, rather than the most brilliantly argued.
There are other faults too. Turn-out tends to be lower than in General Elections, for understandable reasons. This, in turn, reduces the legitimacy of the result. Additionally, there is the thorny issue of when a referendum is required. The more they are used, the weaker the mandate they provide – they are a political currency open to debasement. In addition to this, they can open huge chasms in party politics. When politicians wear their colours on their sleeve and are defeated by the public, the day-to-day repercussions as they continue to legislate, faced with other politicians who ‘won’, have a profound reputational effect.
And then there is the wider issue. Referenda undermine representative democracy. By asking the people to choose directly, politicians’ representative roles are suspended. The logical conclusion of this argument is that, if our leaders poll us on difficult issues, their role as representatives is diminished to the point of irrelevance.
There is a difficult line to tread here. Issues of sovereignty – the usual ‘rule of thumb’ for when a referendum is required (and cause of much argument for Labour with regard to the Lisbon Treaty) – are undoubtedly crucial. They ought not to be decided by the parliamentarians who happen to be in office at the time of the issue. It would seem logical that fundamental changes to our constitution should have the public vote.
But, on the other hand, the problems that beset shiny media campaigns and the vested interests that politicians can have in calling referendums, including trying to discredit political opponents or relying on the public’s vote to heal internal party divisions, all weaken the case for this most direct of democracy.These are very real shortcomings.
And finally, crucially, the central problem resurfaces. Hardly any of those 1.7million Irish voters will have read the text of the Lisbon Treaty. All will be relying on media, much of it privately owned and with vested interests of their own, issuing second-hand understanding of the issue. And some voters will have been trying to deliver a political message to their representatives on issues ancillary to the referendum’s content.
The most qualified people to assess the merits of treaties of this kind are probably the people who work with legislative documents every day. They are the politicians we elected to make these calls. Though in these days of duck ponds, second home allowances and moats, it’s not a popular argument; the fact remains that at some point we’ll have to trust our legislators to do their jobs in our best interests. If we don’t like it, we do have the power to petition parliament and the media. And if this still fails, we can make our feelings known at the next General Election.
This may not be enough when it comes to issues of sovereignty. Whether referenda ought to be used at all is a complex issue.
Maybe we should hold a referendum on it.