A referendum? Much too democratic for Britain

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The Independent Online
YOU LOOK interestingly pale. Just come back from somewhere cool?

Yes. I've been to Denmark.

Oh, for the . . .

Yes. The referendum.

Campaigning for or against Maastricht?

Neither.

Don't tell me you went over to urge the Danes to abstain?

No. I just didn't want to die without having seen a referendum, and if you stay in Britain you'll never see one, so I thought I'd pop over to Denmark and see one.

And what did you see?

Lots of British politicians on Danish TV.

Tebbit, Heath, etc? What did the Danes make of them?

It was sort of self-cancelling.

You mean, Ted Heath didn't persuade anyone to come into the pro-European camp?

Well, I'm afraid they all assumed Heath was anti-European. They couldn't believe that anyone so unable to master a European language could be pro-Maastricht. On the other hand they all took Tebbit to be pro-European, from the way he has been jetting round Europe on his campaign trail.

What did they take you to be?

A Frenchman.

Why?

I spoke French, to avoid being thought to be English.

What did they say when they thought you were French?

They said: 'The French referendum was a very narrow Yes vote, and the Danish referendum was a very narrow No vote. Why did the Danes have to have another referendum to get a different result, but not the French?'

What was your answer?

A deep, cynical French shrug.

I see. So now, having seen a referendum in action, do you think we ought to have one over here?

No.

Why not?

I don't think the British are ready for a referendum yet.

But we can already handle a democratic election. We wouldn't have much trouble with a referendum, surely?

Ah, this is what the politicians always say when we ask them for a referendum. They say: 'We don't need a referendum - we already have a parliamentary democracy.' But I have now seen a referendum in action and I can tell you that a referendum is more challenging than a general election.

Why?

Because a referendum forces people to concentrate on one single issue and discuss it. That's one more issue than ever gets discussed at a British general election.

But we debated issues endlessly at the last election]

Such as?

Well, income tax, the NHS, jobs, council tax . . .

None of those is remotely an issue. They're all about money. We never debate any issue at election time.

So what do we debate about?

Money. Our pockets. What's in it for us. Who will look after our bank balance best, or rather, who will take least away from us.

Whereas at a referendum . . .

Referendums are about one single issue that tends only indirectly to affect our bank statements. So people do some real debating for a change.

So you're saying referendums are, in a way, MORE democratic than parliamentary democracy?

In every way.

And is that why they daren't have one in Britain?

Of course. All governments take an election victory as a signal to ignore the electorate for five years. A referendum would ruin all that. The Government is dead scared of facing a real debate on anything, or of answering real questions.

Oh, come on] Such as?

Well, such as: 'Why should we trust the Tories to know what's best for the future of the railways if they can't even organise a rail link across Kent to the Channel tunnel, let alone work out a transport policy? Why are they building prisons for 12-year-olds when we already have the biggest prison population in Europe? Why is the ineffable John Gummer and his Ministry of Agriculture making things much harder for our farmers and slaughterhouses than Brussels wants them to be, and then blaming Brussels? Why is Norman Lamont . . . ?'

Why is Norman Lamont what?

Nothing. Just, why is Norman Lamont?

Is that the sort of question you seriously want asked in a referendum? 'Why is Norman Lamont?'

It would be a start.

Thank you.

Not at all.

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