Today, across the UK, we are doing something unusual – casting our vote not for a candidate in an election of a political party, but in a referendum – only the third in our history, and the second on the same issue – our relationship with the European Union. That fact alone shows how contentious the issue is. By common assent, the tone of the campaign has been something close to toxic, with both sides making personal criticisms of the other – Tony Benn’s oft-stated desire to discuss ‘issues’ rather than personalities went west.
Last week I spent on the road with a campaign team, and for all the good it did, we’d have been better off staying at home and washing our smalls. Some of the people we spoke to hadn’t even heard of the referendum, but most had, and most of them had made up their mind already. There were times it felt as though a good class in what in America is called ‘civics’ would have been of use, as people complained about ‘unelected bureaucrats’ in brussels, as though out bureaucrats in the UK were elected, or as though members of the House of Lord were voted in by us. The levels of misinformation – on both sides – was immense. But then that’s democracy in all its messy glory – it isn’t pretty, it isn’t logical sometimes, and it isn’t even necessarily well-informed – but then it is made up of all of us, and we’re all those things at times (or is it just me?).
Original Sin, the fall of man, is, Chesterton said, the one dogma you can prove by looking in the mirror. So when I read commentators bemoaning the condition of the electorate and the campaign, I wonder what it is they expect? An LSE seminar with research papers and detailed number-crunching? That doesn’t happen in General elections either. In the end, democracy is based on the premise that the will of the majority gets it right – which is a form of fiction. That’s why we rarely have unmediated democracy – most systems allow for an element of mediation by elected politicians who are, it is hoped, more informed than those who elected them; that too is often a pious hope. But what else is to be done?
This is why the referendum is a dangerous device. Constitutionally we should remember that this is a consultative event. Any legislation to leave the EU will need to be passed by a parliamentary majority. Of course, that means that parliament is, despite allegations to the contrary, still sovereign – we can vote at any point of leave the EU and with no referendum necessary. But everyone knows there is not a majority in parliament for that – so why, you might ask, the referendum at all? The answer is that our Prime Minister had trouble with his own party and feared UKIP’s support would grow at its expense – a referendum was a way of shooting Mr Farage’s fox. But foxes are cunning creatures, and this one may yet inflict a fatal wound on Mr Cameron.
For my own part, I am persuaded by my own Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, that it is a leap in the dark to vote ‘out’. But unlike some, I respect those who take a different view, and am quite happy to acknowledge they may be right, although, clearly, I cannot follow them to their conclusion. This campaign has shown us all democracy – and thus human nature – in the raw. What puzzles me is how people cannot see we stand in need to redemption.