The Prime Minister has got himself into a fankle – and it won’t be the last time in his last term of office. He has made a great deal about delivering his promise to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union – so much so that the Bill is already going through parliament and has received its second reading, where the SNP voted against the idea.
The SNP’s behaviour should not come as a surprise to anyone. After all, if we had voted yes to independence the SNP was not offering us a referendum on Scotland’s EU membership, even though the terms of joining would have undoubtedly been worse than what the UK currently has. Now, confronted with a vote they could not avoid, the SNP MPs voted against giving the people a say.
That’s not the behaviour of democrats in small independent countries like Ireland or Denmark, revealing by contrast an authoritarian streak in the SNP’s approach to politics.
Cameron is also trying to pull a few strokes himself, begging the question – why bother having a referendum at all if it is going to be loaded so heavily in favour of one particular outcome?
The review of the European Referendum Bill by the Electoral Commission makes chilling reading. Firstly a great deal of how the referendum will be conducted is not included on the face of the Bill but will come from regulations to be introduced later. This means the Government will find it easier to rig the question and design the process in its favour as the procedures to pass regulations are quicker, receive less scrutiny and are easier to pass on a vote, than legislation that is subject to line by line amendment.
Most worrying of all is Cameron’s insistence that the Government, its civil servants and the vast array of public bodies are able to have a say at the taxpayers’ expense right up to the day of the vote. Usually there is a period of “purdah”, whereby the government officials are not allowed to take part in support of one side or another. This is a vital restriction that ensures the vast government machine, with its limitless access to resources, does not give the government an advantage.
This is not to say that government ministers will be denied a voice – but it restricts them using the government machine for their benefit.
Cameron has tried to justify his dictatorial approach by arguing it would be like denying the UK Government a say in defending the UK in a Scottish independence referendum – but he is playing with words. Nobody can gag politicians from making their arguments, they will always have a voice and be reported, but if there is to be an honest and balanced assessment of whatever deal he manages to elicit from the EU political elite then there should be a period when the two sides are able to use broadly similar resources rather than find the Government circulating unlimited leaflets and buying advertising.
It may be of course that such a blatant attempt to rig the outcome – if it comes to pass – will simply annoy the electorate and drive people to vote against what the Government recommends. It would be ironic justice of a sort if it did, but far better that people weigh up the pros and cons in full awareness of the issues and with the last six weeks of the campaign the politicians are left to fight it out without one having a bigger club than the other.
Supporters of the UK staying in the EU should bear in mind that there remains the (admittedly very slim) possibility that David Cameron might recommend that his deal is not substantial enough and that the UK should leave – in which case the government machine would be used to support an out campaign!
So this skullduggery is not about the merits of either case but about the Government giving itself an in-built advantage – against all the traditions and practices of how such referenda have been conducted in the past.
Democratic-minded people from both sides should therefore be against this provision in David Cameron’s Bill.
Another aspect of rigging the outcome is how the “Yes” answer for the question has already been given to those wishing to support the status quo of EU membership when we don’t even know the question yet!
The “Yes” answer is normally given to the case being put for change (such as do you want a Scottish Parliament or do you want Scottish independence?) – but in this forthcoming referendum you will be asked to say Yes to the status quo, while advocates of change have to persuade you to vote No to get change!
We know the pro-EU side will be Yes because the campaign for continued EU membership has called itself “Yes2Europe”. This is an intentional deceit, because the EU is not Europe and no one is arguing that we leave Europe – a geographical entity, not a set of political institutions.
Far better would be to offer us two propositions to choose from with neither saying Yes or No – leaving the merits of the case to be the influencing factor – without Cameron loading the dice.