Monday, 16 June 2014

Voting for the sake of it

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, attracted some criticism last week for declaring his support for run “in/out” referendum on the European Union.  Apparently, in some sort of throwback to the past, he supposed to pretend not to have an opinion on anything, so that no one will think he’s biased when chairing debates.  I tend to think that it’s easier to judge whether actions are biased or not if people are open about their views; but let’s leave such arcane issues to one side.
What interested me more was the grounds on which he took such a view, pointing out that no voter under the age of 57 has ever had a chance to vote on the issue.  As a statement of fact, it’s inarguable – the last referendum was 40 years ago.  But as a reason for holding a referendum, it strikes me as utterly fatuous.  How long is too long  for people to have been unable to vote in a particular referendum – and does every referendum therefore have to be rerun every 40 years or so, just so that a new generation can decide whether to stick by a previous decision? 
Why 40 years and not 20 or 30 or – well any number you like really?  I can understand the rationale of those who think that a significant change in arrangements which were themselves the subject of a referendum ought to trigger a further referendum.  I can also understand why some might argue that there’s enough evidence of a change in public opinion to justify a new vote on an issue.  But the mere passage of time since the last vote strikes me as a particularly silly reason for rerunning past arguments and revisiting past decisions.
Arguing against holding a referendum on anything will always be difficult – it can look like an attempt to deny people their say; but there’s no clear consensus about what should or should not “require” the consent of the people in a referendum, and calls for referendums are made on all sorts of issues.
I tend to the view that they’re best used on simple questions of principle rather than on the detail.  So a referendum on membership of what was then the EEC should have been held before entry rather than after the event; but holding a new one every time the terms change is another matter – how do we determine which changes are matters of principle rather than detail?
In the same way, it seemed utterly reasonable to me that the establishment of a National Assembly for Wales should be the subject of a referendum.  Equally it seems entirely appropriate that the question of independence should be decided by a referendum in Scotland.  But I’m not convinced that changes in the detail really require further referendums, any more than changes in the EU really require further referendums.  And holding one just because there are people who were too young to vote last time looks like a complete waste of time and effort.

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