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June 17, 2008

Three Cheers for the Irish and Referenda - says Christie Davies

Posted by Christie Davies

Christie Davies extols the virtues of the Irish - and of referenda. The views expressed here are those of Christie Davies, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

I never thought that I would see the day when Britain would be grateful to Gerry Adams. I never thought I would be critical of that fine body of men, the Special Branch of the Garda Síochána (the Irish anti-terrorist force). Yet without Sinn Féin's campaigning for a no vote when all the other main Irish parties wanted a yes vote, the Irish people might well have agreed to vote for the Lisbon treaty that tightened yet further the tyranny of the European Union. The EU is now in a shambles and we, the British, owe our freedom to Ireland, the only country in Europe democratic enough to hold a referendum.

Had we in Britain been allowed to vote, we too would have rallied to the slogan "We ourselves, ourselves alone" and voted Europe down. But we live in a less democratic society than the Irish, who, ironically enough, may well owe their enhanced democracy in some measure to British pressure and suspicion at the time of the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922.

All constitutional changes should be the subject of referenda, for politicians should not be allowed to decide the conditions under which they hold the power lent to them by the people. It is not theirs to augment arbitrarily nor to give away to an alien body like the EU. The Irish Supreme Court has ruled that all major transfers of power from Ireland to that distant unrepresentative body must be put to the electorate.

The Irish knew full well what our lying British government has denied, namely that the Lisbon treaty was just a trick for implementing the European Constitution rejected by referenda in France and the Netherlands. Subsequently the French and Dutch ruling class have deceived their people into thinking that the Lisbon treaty is not a constitutional matter but Ireland knew better. Hurrah for Ireland!

The begrudgers are already trying to say that the Irish victory for the noes is false and meaningless, because there was a low turnout and a relatively small majority. If the yes vote had won, would they have employed the same argument? Indeed would they argue that British governments elected by about a third of the voters on a low poll are not legitimate and therefore their decisions to hand over powers to Brussels invalid?

Likewise the critics are saying that the Irish no voters were ill informed and did not understand what was at stake. Yet the Irish government paid for the distribution of two and half million booklets giving the voters information and telling them to vote yes. If anyone was misinformed, it was those who voted for Europe. Besides how could the Irish politicians claim to have a good understanding of the Lisbon treaty when they cheerfully admit that they have not read it?

The no voters won against the odds, against the power of the politicians and the Irish ruling class, against a loaded system of information from a biased media; it is said that they even won against a campaign of intimidation by the Special Branch who harassed "no" campaigners trying to distribute their campaign literature in public. We may take it that the "no2 voters knew exactly what they were doing.

Referenda are a necessary part of a democratic constitution. We should envy the people of Switzerland or California who are often consulted in this way. It is better than our elected dictatorship where our only right is the chance is to "turn the rascals out" every five years. Indeed in the case of the EU we cannot even do that. The EU has a bigger democratic deficit than Northern Rock’s financial one.

There may well be some highly technical questions that ought not to be decided by referendum. I have never understood why the Swedish government and political parties, who were completely united in favour of nuclear power, allowed their electors to vote down the building of power stations in a referendum. If you do not know a great deal about science, about economics, about risk, about statistics, how can you form a rational opinion about nuclear power?

But most politics is not like that. To become a scientist or an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant requires a specific training and we can judge a particular individual accordingly. Not only is there no training for a politician but there cannot be. It is in the nature of most political decisions that they depend on the arbitrary synthesis of many different values and material considerations. The politicians' opinions are in no sense better than those of the electorate. Anyone with any sense will consult their doctor, lawyer, accountant, broker before making a key decision and in general follow their advice. But who would ever want to consult a politician about Europe?

When it comes to Europe the politicians decide on the basis of a gut feeling - they have an irrational bias in favour of the European idea and they fear the disapproval of their foreign European counterparts. They may rationalise this and try to sell it to their people as guaranteeing peace and leading to prosperity but why should we take them seriously? The people have the opposite gut feeling - we like our traditions and our national independence. Who is to say we are wrong?

The Irish vote is striking because financially Ireland did very well out of the EU, in contrast to Britain, for whom it has been an economic disaster. At the time of its accession Ireland was a poor country and sucked in subsidies in the way that backward Greece and Portugal still do. The Irish spent them wisely so that they know have a better system of technical education than we do and are more attractive to foreign investors. In consequence they are richer than Britain and can expect no more gravy from Europe. Very sensibly they now want to pull back rather than see their prosperity milked by the corrupt spongers of France and southern Europe.

The Irish can now afford once again to give priority to their national independence. Only in Dublin South and in Dún Laoghaire was there a substantial yes vote; these are the constituencies where the hangers on of the ruling class live. They alone can still smell gravy. They alone can enjoy a high-minded rejection of their own people’s sentiments. If Britain had had a referendum, we would have found the same division between the political class and the people, the divide that President Vaclav Klaus has warned us will destroy democracy in Europe.

The Irish people have won and they have also won on behalf of us. The question now is whether the peoples of Europe in general as well as Britain and Ireland will be able to build on this victory or whether they will once again be tricked and deceived by their politicians.

Dr Christie Davies has recently lectured at Charles University, Prague, on Central Europe and the EU. His lecture will be published later this year.

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Christie Davies is right to cheer the Irish for rejecting the Lisbon Treaty. However he overreaches himself when he discusses the merits of referenda generally. According to Davies, if you do not know a great deal about science, about economics, about risk, about statistics, how can you form a rational opinion about nuclear power?

The problem with that argument is that most of the big questions facing the modern world involve grappling with the issues of economics, risk, statistics and forming rational opinions about choices without the benefit of expertise. Perception and reality do not necessarily align, and rarely do so without debate. That is why public opinion is both sought and feared as a mass force.

His examples of rule by referenda are not convincing. California is not a country. Switzerland is hardy one either (more like four languages and cultures united by a constitution). Sweden is a marginal country at best. But imagine the US and UK ruled by referenda. Perhaps hanging would be restored in the UK and teaching “creationist” theories would take precedence over teaching evolution in schools. The problem with Davies’ celebration of “gut instincts” is that it can easily become mob rule.

Moreover, the evidence from Switzerland points against Davies’s contention that nuclear power is too technical an issue for the pubic to master. Switzerland has had numerous national votes on nuclear energy. The last two were in 2003. Then the Swiss rejected a call to phase out nuclear power and rejected another separate proposal to extend the expired moratorium on building new plant.

On a world-scale, negative public opinion is no longer the major problem for determining the future of nuclear power. Rather it is the inequities, lack of long term planning in the energy markets, and gutlessness of modern politicians when it comes to making radical decisions. Politicians, indeed, hide behind so-called public concern (read Green Peace and Friends of the Earth) as a shield to cover their lack of resolve and vision.

There is still a major role for informed leadership in this world. Such leadership may or may not run counter to public opinion. It might shape it or equally turn a blind eye as the UK does on hanging.

So, when it comes to the EU, I am with the Irish. The UK should hold one on this issue too, because the Lisbon Treaty represents a fundamental challenge to the future of British democracy as currently constituted (as did EU entry). But we should issue a health warning when people propose that rule by referenda provides a quick fix for solving society’s problems. It does not.

Posted by: paul seaman at June 17, 2008 03:19 PM

Diolch, Proffeswr,

for sticking up for Ireland. And what’s more, I don’t buy into the “bite the hand that feeds them” argument. The Irish aren’t voting against Europe – they’re voting against a proposal that would make Europe more like Ming Dynasty China, centralized, bureaucratic, and unable to fight off the Manchus.

The Luxemburgers are also standing up for Ireland. See Germany Criticized for "Arrogant" Reaction to Irish Vote. This is in the spirit of their national motto “Mir welle bleiwe wat mir sin” (we want to remain what we are), from De Feierwon.

Wele fâner Gwalia'i fyny
Rhyddid aiff a hi!
Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 17, 2008 07:13 PM

I admire both Davies and Seaman.

However, both dislike the new EU treaty, constitution, whatever - and it seems OK to me. If it delivers a workable, wide, shallow EU, then we're on track for the world's first voluntary empire. If the EU remains too protectionist and dirigiste, the UK can leave at any time. I could care less. Ditto, the UK union. They're just options, they're not destinies.

Davies and Seaman fall out over the role of referenda, and here I side with Seaman.

What's either too technical or too emotive for a people's choice? Nearly everything. What's too important for politicians to decide? Hardly anything. My prejudice is strongly in favour of a dynamic representative democracy.

Frankly, if the Irish government can't sign up to what other governments have agreed to, let's threaten to chuck 'em out. They'll come into line or go their own way. Who cares? As Davies says, they've had our money. We sort of love them and can always meet them on business or on holiday.

Posted by: Richard D North at June 18, 2008 09:57 AM

Ordinary people are far too stupid to understand what to choose in a referendum. I often wonder why they are allowed to vote at all.
The EU has made it clear that it will not respect the decision of the Irish referendum and will proceed with Lisbonisation so what was the point of holdiing it?

Posted by: John A P Williams at June 19, 2008 12:31 PM
"Ordinary people are far too stupid to understand what to choose in a referendum."

That attitude reminds me of John 7:47-49;

The Pharisees answered them ... "But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed."

Chesterton well knew that the ordinary people can hold on to sound judgment long after the "great and good" have gone to the dogs.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 20, 2008 01:20 PM
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