Friday, 13 May 2011

Any In/Out Referendum has to be carefully 'managed'

Following on from my previous post*, it is Government that now ominously refers to charities as "The Third Sector" - and it is enormous. One only has to consider Dame Suzi Leather of the Charity Commission to realise the way it is being steered. Whilst not anxious to be seen as starting an anti referendum campaign - there are too many splits in the Eurosceptic world as it is - it is however important that a pro-thinking campaign (of which there is little present evidence) is begun.

There is a critique for quiet consideration within the pro-independence movement . An “in/out” EU referendum may well be part of the mechanism by which Britain eventually leaves the EU but we know that the EU protagonists regard “in” votes as final and binding and “out” votes as merely provisional. For some idea of the likely forces of manipulation which would be available to the “in” side, people should refer to the Eurofacts document “How they swung it in the early Seventies” and to the Anthony Royle report, now released under the Thirty Year rule, of the press and public relations campaign waged by HMG to influence public opinion in favour of EEC membership at that time.

It is important that acknowledgement is given to the contribution which the Democracy Movement has made to the pro independence cause. The Democracy Movement has been the prime mover of the People's Pledge campaign for a referendum. Edward Spalton had a most brilliant letter about his concerns regarding an In/Out referendum and these concerns were set out in his September letter which appeared in "The Euro Realist" - and, it has to be said, they apply just as much to the People's Pledge as to any other. Before writing that letter it is understood that Edward Spalton consulted Dr. Anthony Coughlan of the Irish National Platform who has experience of both winning and losing referendum campaigns concerning the EU. It is also understood that the question was not put to him directly but he did not mention receiving any approach from British referendum campaigners (which he surely would, if he had). One can also be sure that our country's foes will have learned the Irish lesson of what wins and what loses a referendum and be rather surprised that the independence campaigners had not thought to do so.

It was Dr. Coughlan's opinion that the weight of “outside” money and influence, rather than the officially awarded public funding to either side for the short period of the official campaign before the poll, was what decided the result. However it has since come to light that the Irish authorities did not give public money to each side in referendum campaigns. Originally the Referendum Commissioner was funded and  had a duty of putting arguments for and against in moderate, neutral language. When the Nice treaty vote went against the EU, the Dail changed the system, ramming all stages of the Bill through in both Houses in one day - the day before they rose for the Christmas recess. The Referendum Commissioner no longer has that duty of impartially presenting both sides of the argument. In a time of economic uncertainty, it was “the fear of the people, not the will of the people” which determined the result. Whilst he was careful not to try to tell us what to do, he gave his opinion that an “out” referendum could only be carried with any certainty by the whole-hearted support of the party in government, using all its many influences. If a referendum campaign were to be fought, he believed it would be wiser to campaign for the referendum on the Lisbon treaty (promised by all parties) or (say) The European Arrest Warrant or the Common Fisheries Policy (from which the Conservatives once promised our release). A favourable vote in such a referendum would (paraphrasing) throw such a spanner in the works as to come close to an “out” vote. Yet, if lost, it would merely be a lost battle and not a lost war – which would certainly be the case if an “in/out” referendum resulted in an “in” vote

To fix wholly and solely on an “in/out” referendum is to declare the chosen means of fighting to an enemy who will have the advantage of making the dispositions of his far superior forces of money, influence and persuasion well in advance and of fixing the time of the engagement to his best advantage. It will not be a fair fight. Most of it will take place long before the immediate campaign before the poll – without rules and with all the advantage to big money and entrenched influence. Reports of the way in which this was done in the Seventies are available but no evidence exists, of which I am aware, that they have been taken into consideration by any pro-referendum campaigner. The responses I have heard or had reported are “Public opinion is moving our way” (equivalent to “we hope something will turn up”) and “That is a completely separate issue” (to actually getting a referendum).

A line of thought exists that a referendum – or pressure for one – may well be part of the mechanism by which we leave the EU – but it is not essential nor the only one. A parliamentary majority of one would be sufficient. As far as is known, nobody has given thought to an American-style write-in campaign to MPs, maintained and sustained over time. All eurosceptic organisations have urged their members to speak and write to their MPs but there has never been any serious organisation to build a disciplined core of (say) 2 dozen people in every constituency to keep the issue before MPs and press perpetually. Individuals have written, gone to see their MPs, asked a question at a meeting and usually got a dusty answer. Then they have retreated to the comfort zone of like-minded eurosceptics to complain about it and the MPs (for the most part) have heard nothing more. So they can say with all truthfulness (or as much as can be expected) that “Europe” is not an issue which troubles their constituents.

Comments have been seen elsewhere on blogs that the anti-EU movement is fragmented, thus their voice is diminuated, That there would seem to be 'agent provocateurs' within the anti-EU movement, thus ensuring diminuation of any movement to gain withdrawal from the EU is best illustrated by the attempt of Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell, in front of press representatives,  to bounce the Better Off Out Campaign into disbanding and joining with Keith Vaz, Caroline Lucas and other choice europhile specimens in a “Better with a Referendum” campaign.  Whilst the Better Off Out campaign does not commit its members to any binding course of action, MPs who join it know that they do so at the cost of forfeiting any prospect of promotion. With the commitment downgraded to merely demanding a referendum, that might no longer apply. If  pro independence MPs  were persuaded join the government, they would be lost to the movement. The Pledge campaign makes no distinction between MPs and candidates who are committed to EU withdrawal and those who believe deeply in EU membership and think that a referendum is a good way of locking us in. It will therefore promote rabid federalists as being equally as desirable candidates as solid sovereignists.

Hannan's behaviour is  the sort of putsch which some of us have seen attempted before,  destabilising other soundly pro-independence organisations and rendering  them less effective. It can only have happened with support or encouragement of the People's Pledge. Similarly, Keith Vaz is such a known careerist that he would not have offered his support to the People's Pledge without clearing it with the top leadership of the Labour party. One of the Democracy Movement's best leaflets was in the style of a detergent advert - “New miracle Vaz won't wash”. He still doesn't!  It is possible that Labour may use the campaign to show “Tory splits” on Europe. Mr Cameron might then “do a Wilson” and call a referendum earlier rather than later to lance the boil of Tory euroscepticism – and he could easily win. He nailed his colours to the EU mast on Al Jazeera.

A referendum has now been held on the “Alternative Vote” system. The Electoral Reform Society funded the “yes” campaign massively with money and with the loan of staff. This is a straw in the wind. The society has a commercial subsidiary which offers “electoral services” to public authorities. It is known that one council uses it for part of the registration of electors. It is highly profitable and would get massively more so, had a more complicated voting system were introduced. There are hundreds of such “Third Sector” organisations (as officialdom calls them), now with greater freedom to promote political objectives than they had under the old Charities legislation. Many are lavishly funded by the EU. As far as is known, there has been no attempt to list, quantify and evaluate the electoral pressure which such organisations could apply in an “in/out” EU referendum – on either side. It is worth noting that there are moves in the EU parliament to allow EU funds to be used in referendum campaign within member states and that the proposals for pan EU political parties are quite well developed.

Neither, again as far as is known, has anybody considered institutional bias in the electoral process itself. The postal voting system is known to be demonstrably corrupt, especially in culturally enriched areas. The few cases that have come to court are probably just the tip of an iceberg. There is a widespread feeling that the process of voter registration may have been compromised by outsourcing to private companies. Private Eye identified one such company with close links to the Labour Party. Then there is the Electoral Commission itself. Whilst not yet having researched the fact, it is believed that there is a statutory requirement in the Elections Political Parties and Referendum Act for the Commission to “inform” people about the institutions of the EU. I am subsequently reliably informed, on this matter of impartiality, the British Electoral Commission definitely DOES have a statutory duty to "inform" and "educate" people about the institutions of the EU. That can be interpreted in various ways and nobody who has received the reports of the Irish National Platform on the extreme partiality of the Irish electoral authorities could feel easy about the possible behaviour of this archetypal New Labour quango in a crucial referendum.

It is not inconceivable to argue that anybody starting out with the intention to win a referendum to get us out of the EU would have begun by dealing with such considerations as a first priority before even thinking of campaigning for a referendum. It is the elementary duty of any commander,who means to win, to “appreciate the ground from the enemy's position”, work out what forces the enemy may reasonably be expected to have and to assure himself of having at least local superiority to defeat them decisively. If he hasn't got that, he may fight a spoiling action or retreat – but that is not a possibility in a referendum campaign which is a win or lose, frontal assault. On present showing it could easily turn out like the Charge of the Light Brigade. As a French general remarked of that occasion “C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre”. We cannot afford such an heroic failure, however magnificent. 
None of the proponents of an “in/out” referendum appears to have given any thought as to how the process of disengagement from the EU would be carried out, if an “out” vote by the electors were achieved but the government in power remained composed of “old style” politicians who were reasonably comfortable with life under the EU and not passionately and totally committed to leaving it. Even with a firm political commitment by a majority of MPs to independence, the degree of stubborn inertia in government departments and official bodies would be enormous with huge numbers of civil service apparatchiks and quangocrats able to ambush even an enthusiastic government into repeated pitfalls and disasters. With a less than enthusiastic government and parliament, the situation would be a happy hunting ground for functionaries of the “Yes, Minister” type to wrong-foot their nominal political masters repeatedly in the highly intricate business of disentangling constitution and administration from the EU web, which has been woven for over fifty years to prevent any such thing from happening. We now have politicians and officials who look like us and talk like us but whose main loyalties have been elsewhere for decades. The present situation could not have occurred without them.

The inertia of vested official interests in (say) the Foreign Office would be enormous. The extent to which long-established official attitudes within departments can frustrate even a determined government with a large majority has been demonstrated repeatedly over the years. To take a  domestic example, the Thatcher government set out to reverse declining standards in state education with the idea of insisting on a basic national curriculum to ensure that, at least,  the “Three Rs” were taught in schools. The “progressive” educational establishment was able to ambush this simple idea and turn the national curriculum into a complicated, prescriptive, jargon-laden  monster which is  now a major part of the problem. At vastly greater expense and effort, state schools continue to turn out a high proportion of unemployable, near illiterates and innumerates who form the basis of the permanent class of welfare claimants and petty criminals. The doctrinaire educational establishment was able to divert and defeat the attempt to raise standards and to deceive not very bright politicians by “rising standards”, manufactured by making the exams easier. How much greater is the opportunity for that sort of obstructionism in untangling a project like the EU which affects so many departments of state and entrenched official interests? A referendum victory would be entirely hollow without MPs or government committed heart and soul to making independence a success and willing to confront and, if necessary to sack, obstructive officials – even if they are Permanent Secretaries.

If a referendum is called, whether soon or late, it will only be the beginning of an almighty struggle, amounting to revolution against the new system of government that has been created in the last forty years. Some believe it best to continue their efforts to influence opinion in favour of independence - both within Parliament and elsewhere - taking every opportunity from the increasingly desperate and ultimately unsustainable crises to which the euro currency is suffering. There is the converse argument by those of lesser patience that revolution should happen now - but as history tells us, when change does not occur quickly enough once the people are aroused, revolution happens regardless - and usually to the bloody detriment of the political class.

*With the problems experienced with Blogger this link may not immediately work - the post in question dealt with the involvement of charities campaigning for a 'Yes' vote in the AV Referendum.



john in cheshire said...

I think we have only two options : election of a pro-withdrawal dictator or armed insurrection. Nothing short of these options is going to change the minds of those who currently purport to serve us.

Anonymous said...

If the registration of electors has been outsourced by some councils then no one is obliged to contract with a private corporation.

If the councils themselves are registered as private corporations then no one is obliged to contract with them - including for council tax purposes.

I agree with john in cheshire - armed insurrection is the only thing that will get our country back.


kenomeat said...

An excellent, thought-provoking post. I was wary of a referendum before but you have provided even more reasons to be fearful.

WitteringsfromWitney said...

jic & A: you may both be correct regarding a revolution/insurrection, but this does not answer the growing calls for a referendum, which as I explain contains a real danger and one that would make any revolution.insurrection that much more difficult.

k: Thank you for your kind comment.

Anonymous said...

This is excellent. I attempted the same subject* but your post provides much better detail and even more arguments against a referendum.


The Boiling Frog said...

Excellent post WfW, highlighting the real reasons why having a referendum and winning it will be an enormous challenge.

I think too many believe that the result is already done and dusted. But we would have the entire organs of the state against us including every media outlet bar the Daily Express.

WitteringsfromWitney said...

TBF Thank you for your comment. It is important that EU Ref campaigns do not lead the people down a dead-end!