Appleyard, the Lords, Crooked Timber and the Irish Referendum

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Bryan Appleyard, Lords of the Blog and Crooked Timber) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

Bryan Appleyard has an interesting reflection on the Irish thumbing their nose at the EU and David Davis doing likewise at the Westminster robotic party-political culture, both populists moves being as mindless as the proposals they are protesting in Appleyard’s view. He isn’t the first and won’t be the last to observe that ‘mistrust and distaste is now the primary political reality’. It has been with us for a while and coincides with the rise of the politics of psychotic fear filling the vacuum created with the collapse of positive political narratives at the end of the cold war (brilliantly documented in Adam Curtis’s documentary series The Power of Nightmares).

So I can’t quite view Brown’s 42-day proposals with anything like the same ambivalence as Appleyard, the whole manoeuvre being so intimately connected to what is so profoundly rotten in the current politics, and am minded to be somewhat more indulgent of Davis’s populist manoeuvres. They seem healthy and a natural part of the political process.

But I can’t be quite so indulgent of the Irish (despite my many and deep connections to the Irish). The constitution may not have been inspiring but I can’t square it with a gratitude for the cohesion that the EU has fostered, helping to make a European war unthinkable. If there was a profound principle at stake then fair enough, but it seems to have been a coalition of the disgruntled determined to stick it to the political classes and this strikes me as poor grounds for voting down a treaty perhaps (ironically highlighting the kind of dysfunctional behaviour all to easily associated with the EU). If the Irish had opted to leave the EU in the referendum then this would have been more honest—as it is it just looks irresponsible and self-indulgent.

But it is not a clear cut issue as Henry at Crooked Timber explains. Although a tiny minority of the EU have (arguably petulantly) thrown its institutions into turmoil, that is because none of the other countries dared give their people a say.

All of which leads one to doubt whether referendums are a good idea and Lord Norton has an interesting article on Lords of the Blog, What’s Wrong with Referendums, arguing that it is not at all practical to use referendums to set policy. At best you have to let the elders beat out a proposal to be handed to the plebs who get an opportunity throw a spoke in the wheel. This only really makes sense when there is a clear-cut decision of real importance, such as accession to the EU. Otherwise referendums make little sense.

Maybe the democratic crisis will be better solved by less referendums and more wise patrician rule of the kind se see from Lord Norton and co.

One response to “Appleyard, the Lords, Crooked Timber and the Irish Referendum

  1. You sort of back in to, but actually I think referendums are fine to set general policy, they are just awful at things that require fine-grained tuning.

    For example, where I’m from, California, we have all too many referendums. But part of the problem is that they aren’t really about general policy. They tend to be things like “is this exact formulation of insurance rules a good idea” and then you get 3 competing proposals (and horrors if two of them pass).

    But for general policy questions the referendums work just fine. We’ve had them on questions like “Should illegal immigrants get social welfare services” and “Should the state be allowed to implement race-based affirmative action”. That type of thing can be voted on in a referendum because it is a yes or no question.

    Also things that fundamentally alter the social compact between state and citizen should probably be subject to referendum.

    The problem with this particular vote is that the ‘Yes’ side sort of wants to have all possible worlds. So far as I can tell, this is the rejected Constitution disguised as a treaty. It deeply changes the social compact, so is probably subject to referendum. But internally the document functions more like insurance laws than over-arching policy. That makes voting ‘yes/no’ on it kind of difficult. But that problem seems to exist mainly because the EU directors are too scared to try the general policy constitution thing again. But if that is the case, why should they be allowed to back-door the issue?

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