Steve Richards: Don't be fooled – these 'heroic campaigns' only make our democracy even more fragile

Our leaders at Westminster are so in touch with voters that they are fearful of their own convictions

Tuesday 17 June 2008 00:00 BST

There are two popular heroes this week, hailed as protectors of our fragile democracy in their willingness to engage with voters. The first newly-deified figure is David Davis, who challenges the so called "Westminster village" by taking his campaign to the people.

The other is the Irish constitution, which compelled the Government to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Not for Ireland the primrose parliamentary path towards ratification; instead, it lets the people decide. In the UK especially, the Eurosceptics pay homage to the triumph of democracy in Ireland.

But what passes for heroic democratic engagement is often the opposite. If they have any choice in the matter, a referendum is a device proposed by leaders only when they are certain they can win. Conversely, it is used by voters to cast their verdict on a variety of subjects often unrelated to the single issue they are supposed to be voting on. Referendum campaigns are fuelled by hysteria whipped up in order to create an atmosphere of fear.

Similarly, single-issue by-elections are a distortion, the crusading candidate implying that one policy can be plucked out of the air and made the subject of excessive and simplistic attention, when any national leader must address the subtleties of the relevant single issue and give more prominence to other policy areas.

With Mr Davis, the situation is more confused. If he were to hold an Irish-style national referendum on his opposition to detaining suspects for longer, he would lose. Voters approve of him for different, and more dangerous, reasons, because he sticks two fingers up at orthodox democratic politics.

In the Irish referendum campaign, Europe was blamed on everything from high taxes to abortion and portrayed as a threat to democracy. Yet the referendum and the power it gives to a tiny number of voters in one small country shows the EU is democratic to the point of paralysis. The Irish voters have a veto on a treaty that in some form or other remains necessary in order to make an enlarged Europe work more effectively, an enlarged Europe being one of the developments supported by Eurosceptics in Ireland and indeed in the United Kingdom.

It is now the view of pragmatically pro-European cabinet ministers in Britain, and senior Liberal Democrats, that a referendum on Europe can never be won in any country at any point in the future. I agree with them. If Ireland turns away in spite of all the obvious benefits it has enjoyed from membership of Europe, no other country will vote "yes" on any Europe-related issue.

This is partly the responsibility of the distant bureaucrats that run the EU, apparently incapable of producing documents that are comprehensible to voters. We cannot hold these officials to account if we do not know what they are doing or supposed to do.

But there remains still the fundamental problem of decision-making through a referendum. If the European Union did not exist, voters would be crying out ambiguously for an institution which sought to make common cause over issues such as the environment and immigration while accompanied by so many democratic checks that it is almost impossible to get anything done.

Now they have got such an institution, they choose to tear it apart, often out of unfounded fears. Ireland should be removed from the EU if it continues to insist on subjecting each treaty to a referendum campaign. It makes democratic politics unworkable in Europe.

That is part of the problem with David Davis's by-election. If every MP were to be equally self-indulgent, democratic politics would be unworkable in Britain too. Cleverly, Mr Davis portrays his move as one that chimes with voters compared with the timid, insular preoccupations of the "Westminster village", always a location viewed with a lazy disdain.

In doing so, he fuels the stupid and dangerous "plague on all their houses" culture. Politics is a tough old business. It is about the resolution of disagreement through debate, manoeuvring, winning votes in parliament, persuading voters and the media to come on board. This may not sound especially romantic, but the alternative to resolution of dispute through politics is the use of force. Politics is better.

I therefore have some sympathy with David Cameron in being wary of Mr Davis' s ardour for civil liberties, or a particular form of liberty. Mr Cameron wants to win a general election and then to govern, two hugely complex tasks even if, in today's anti-politics culture, they are seen as rather orthodox ambitions. Given Mr Davis' s minority view on civil liberties he has done well to prevail as much as he has with Mr Cameron. Given his very narrow, small state definition of what it means to be "liberal" he has done even better to get the dewy-eyed backing of a few Labour MPs.

My opposition to referendums and one issue by-elections puts me firmly in the unfashionable "Westminster village" wing of the argument, but those that attack this imaginary place do so in ways that are confused. It is because the voters are listened to so obsessively by party leaders that Gordon Brown went ahead with his proposals to detain people for longer without charge.

It is because Mr Cameron has both ears defensively attuned to the mood of voters that he is wary of Mr Davis' s position and why senior members of his entourage briefed last week that the leadership position on this policy area would change soon. It is not that leaders at Westminster are out of touch. They are so in touch with the mood of voters they are fearful of their own convictions, if they have any. Such a state of consensual paralysis would be even worse if the UK had more referendums and single-issue by-elections.

Mr Davis heightens misplaced prejudices by claiming he wants a debate on what is happening to civil liberties, implying that there has been inadequate attention paid to this issue. Yet I read of little else. The debate is intense, long-running, spiced with paranoia and arguably gets more prominence than it deserves compared with other more important policy areas. Parliament debates the topic all the time.

For once, the media marches in step with Parliament. Newspapers and broadcasters offer reams of coverage. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he even took part in an exchange of letters with the journalist Henry Porter, the Prime Minister and an unelected journalist getting equal billing, which is about right in terms of who has most influence in shaping the debate, although a bit harsh on Mr Porter. Only last Wednesday the Comm-ons staged a debate on 42 days, in which Mr Davis's side won the argument convincingly.

Party lines are already blurred because leaders fear the voters too much. If they became less neurotically attentive, politics would become more interesting and, I suspect, more progressive. One way of ensuring that does not happen is to celebrate the use of referendums and by-elections. Already the "Westminster village" bows to the fleeting, intimidating prejudices expressed in polls, focus groups and the media. These heroic campaigns make fragile democracy more precarious still.

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