There’s something I notice in our current Brexit shenanigans, and I feel almost that I’m being a spoil-sport in pointing to it, because there’s no doubt we’ve had more public entertainment from this issue than we’ve had for many a year: but I don’t hear as much criticism as I’d like to of the notion of Government by Referendum. Our parliamentary democracy developed the way it did because it seemed like the best idea that we elect representatives who we trusted to have more knowledge and expertise in political matters than we, the Public, do. The idea of putting actual decisions into the hands of “the people” is one that rational-minded people would once have considered outrageous. The precursor of the Referendum, back in the time of the absolutist monarchs, was the Mob – I mean the kind of mob that you find running through some of Shakespeare’s plays, rampaging through sundry cities bawling for bread or cake or whatever: the mob that Rulers would generally pay a good deal of attention to because it was inconvenient having to replace the smashed windows of one’s palace, but which they would generally try to get round by a combination of carrots, sticks and false promises. I think this was a reasonable enough approach to the politics of the “people’s will” – always remembering that that concept, “the people”, has been the subject of about as much distortion as one of those old leaky pig’s bladders they used for a football in mediaeval times – well indeed, not just distortion: deliberate falsehood too, in ample measure. There’s a good case for regarding government by referendum as an abdication of responsibility by the government and the people’s representatives – the reason for this being, to put it plainly, that the Public is stupid. I was going to say the British Public, but in fact stupidity is not a respecter of national boundaries – indeed the main correlate of stupidity is numbers: the greater the number of people involved in having opinions and making decisions, the greater the level of stupidity. That’s why up to now we’ve been reasonably content with a ratio of about 1 representative per 100,000 head of population in our national politics, with a bunch of unelected Elders who try to ensure that the levels of stupidity don’t get out of hand. I don’t say the ratio of 1:100,000 is great, and I guess the ratio in local politics is a little better, but unfortunately the mob doesn’t have too much interest in local politics: too close to home, and having potentially more of a cause-and-effect link of passions and opinions with everyday reality. Anyway, the general rule, as I might have mentioned before, is expressed by one of the characters in the film Men in Black: “a person is smart; people are stupid.”
We should never underestimate stupidity, and we should never underestimate the levels of ignorance either. Here in the Moray constituency we have recently switched to an SNP administration because the previous coalition of Tory and “independent” councillors couldn’t hold it together to produce policies that would provide the desired services. However a large percentage of people I’ve spoken to were under the impression that there has been an SNP administration all along – presumably because in some murky recess of their memory there lurks the fact that nationally we have an SNP-led administration. Most reporters and commentators in the Media – the honest ones and the rogues alike – do their best to raise the general level of political knowledge, but by and large they’ve run into the brick wall of despair and compensate with enormous headlines that attempt to encapsulate complex notions in five to ten words, or whatever above that seems geared to the shaky attention-span of their readers and listeners. Such statements are certainly not news, but that’s for the precise reason that the Public is not interested in news.
I don’t say a referendum can’t be useful. I believe the, possibly more sophisticated, public in Switzerland have got the hang of quite frequent referenda (you remember the groans of pain in Britain at the thought of not another vote – oh poor us!). But binding yourself to the results of a referendum as by mandate (much beloved word these days!)? – come on, that’s just crazy stupid, as well as irresponsible politics. And of course our love of the concept of a mandate ignores the arbitrary nature of the thing: does a 51% vote constitute a mandate – or surely we should tweak it a bit (especially if there’s Scots voters involved), surely we can’t talk about a mandate unless there’s a 66% vote or – God knows, a 75% vote…. Nobody but a parliament of Idiots would allow a mandate to a public who can’t even manage to hang onto the basic facts of a political issue, surely?
Ah, but over and above this there’s the fact that a referendum probably always has a sub-text. Here’s some examples: most people I spoke to in 2014 didn’t remember Alex Salmond for his singular courage and dedication through the years when Scottish independence looked like a figment of somebody’s imagination: they knew him simply as the rather irritating First Minister of Scotland and, almost certainly, many of them treated the Independence Referendum as the typical sort of popularity contest that we nowadays call a General Election. When people in Scotland noticed that – as is pretty easy to manage, if you’re a half-decent manipulator – Scotland had been shafted in that particular political show, they voted in a landslide of representatives to parliament in the full knowledge that these representatives all supported the idea of Scottish independence. But of course that didn’t count: the mandate was for continuing “union” with England.
Ah, union… so then we come to the European Union – a group of nations which freely and autonomously decided to give up some of their sovereignty in exchange for the benefits of existing in a larger political and economic entity…. Now go and have a look at the rhetoric leading up to the particular political show that has been dubbed Brexit (presumably because our tiny attention-spans can’t cope with any Bigger Word), and overlay it on the rhetoric leading up to the Scottish Independence referendum – which was basically about whether Scotland as a political unit should be allowed to make autonomous decisions regarding its welfare and its future – and see if you can spot any radical differences. Independence from Europe, ah Bravehearts all, let’s vote for FREEDOM – too long have we been in slavery! – Not to mention the fact that our European referendum was beautifully timed to provide a context – perhaps even a pretext, who knows? – for the standard English political attitude towards Scotland (at least now that Scotland no longer represents the threat of an invading army): ignore it – just pretend it’s not there. And, these days, its MPs too, especially the ones who promulgate Scottish independence – ignore them at all costs, talk about something else, or if we have to talk about Scotland, let’s talk about a drunken Alex Salmond with his trousers round his ankles….
Indeed the European referendum had two important subtexts: one was to prevent too many brown-skinned, non-English-speaking people from coming into Britain, whatever need or terror had driven them to flee their native land. The other was that of which we do not speak: Scotland. Try buying a couple of acres of land from a farmer, even at a more-than-fair price…. then scale that up to a national level, and you’ll get a glimpse of the subtext of the current British politics regarding Scotland. There are no rational arguments involved, no considerations of administrative efficiency nor even of the cultural differences that put a slightly different emphasis on moral/political values and so make some sense of “national” boundaries, particularly national boundaries within a bigger whole, such as Europe – no, there’s none of that: you’re not getting any of MY land is the fundamental atavism lurking just below sight in the governing circles, and all the legions of stupidity, as represented in Referenda, can be marshalled to support it – it’s easy.