A referendum on Europe
Friday 24th May 2013 3:21 PM
I am always very cautious about arguments for a referendum. I have an instinctive distrust of using them as the means to take political decisions but I am fully aware that opponents would accuse me of not trusting the people to have a say in the choices that affect them. No doubt this mistrust and criticism will surface again in the present context of backbench Conservative clamour for a referendum on Europe to be guaranteed by 2017 or sooner. This criticism could be even more strident as voters in Scotland are to have their own referendum on independence from the UK in September 2014.
The risk with referenda is that the best decisions for a country are not automatically to be found in the context of populist campaigns surrounding them. Public opinion can be whipped up by partisan media with profoundly important decisions seemingly reduced to simple choices, either yes or no. It may sound patronising to argue that political decisions need to be taken after the fullest consideration of the pros and cons of an issue but referenda can lead to very many votes being cast in ignorance of all the relevant details and concerns. I accept that having MPs responsible for making decisions is no guarantee against ignorance but they are in the best position to learn the detail and receive informed advice on policy consequences. Most importantly, they can be held to account. How do you repeal a law created after a referendum, even if it is seen to be a bad law, without a further referendum? Who can ever be held responsible for a referendum decision that goes wrong? No Prime Minister is going to need to resign over a discredited policy failure when it was decided by a referendum.
In my view referenda also diminish political vision and leadership which I think is so important for shaping public opinion and our decisions. The 'classic case' of an issue where there has been a clamour for a referendum is that of capital punishment. The objections to the death penalty stem from the fact that an execution cannot be reversed, that guilt is often never certain and that our compassionate traditions of remorse, repentance and forgiveness should always be allowed to redeem an offender. That noble view of human life has been repeatedly expressed in the Houses of Parliament and in my view has stopped us going back to barbaric punishments - even if public protection requires a life sentence in prison to mean what is says. Thankfully the pressure for a referendum has been resisted and whenever capital punishment is mentioned today, the idea is contrary to most public opinion. Had a referendum on capital punishment been held in the wake of some horrific murder, how many innocent or redeemable, accused people would have lost their lives as a result?
Many other issues might excite demands for referenda. Some attracting popular support risk frightening outcomes. These are a few of my nightmares.
- Citizens should be allowed to keep a gun in order to protect their homes and families.
- Conspiracy to injure and kill police officers should be punishable by death.
- Tax and excise duty on road fuel should be abolished.
- Concealing the face should be illegal in public places.
- Government benefits should only be paid to those who have contributed National Insurance.
- Foreigners should be refused treatment from NHS institutions unless they have insurance or the means to pay.
- Government borrowing to fund an annual budget deficit should be illegal.
All of these situations have surfaced in political debate. All would have attracted votes for and against if submitted for referenda. Some would have passed into law.
It took political leadership to decriminalise homosexuality and allow gay marriages to be recognised. Would we have ever reached the largely tolerant position we see to be so right today had matters been put in a referendum in a former climate where ignorance, prejudice and suspicion still shaped our social mores?
Would it really have been better had we stubbornly insisted, through a referendum, to retain our outmoded currency of pounds, shillings and pence in a trading world where currency units generally divide into one hundredths?
My firm view is that the system of electing an MP in a political structure where a representative government can be formed is the most practical, expedient and secure way of ensuring that decisions are made after due consideration of the implications. I will not vote for a referendum on the Europe question. As long as I serve as an MP I will listen to my constituents, consider all the advice I can assimilate, hear what my party colleagues say and make up my mind for what I think is in the best interests of those who trusted me with their vote. I will go out on limb, if necessary, against party pressure, to vote for what I believe is just and in the best interests of our country and my constituency.