Monday, January 11, 2010

Choose Life, Choose Method Of Choosing

Reading through the Lib Dem blogosphere I'm often struck by the recurring thought; "Would we mind fixing one thing at a time please?" I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised, therefore, to find that thought cropping up elsewhere. Not that Geraint Talfan Davies and the IWA are trying to fix multiple things at once, of course. But they do call useful attention to something we often seem to be.

Mind you, I am surprised that it wasn't the Lib Dem blogosphere that alerted me to a House of Lords Constitution Committee investigation of referendums; I'd have expected geekery-a-plenty on that sort of thing by now. Then again, given that Wales is the only part of the UK likely to have a referendum (that actually matters and has a cat's chance in hell of being answered in the affirmative) in the near future I suppose we do have the most immediate interest in that investigation's results.

That referendum is a statutory requirement of the Government Of Wales Act 2006, but you have to ask yourself why? As the IWA point out, Britain's referendal history has a lot less to do with questions of vital constitutional importance and a lot more to do with political expediency. Britain didn't need a referendum to join the EEC in 1973; it needed a referendum pledge from Harold Wilson in 1974 to placate the TUC whose opposition to it had divided his cabinet. Every European referendum pledge since stems from the divisions in John Major's post-1992 government; Maggie herself happily signed the Single European Act without a thought to a referendum because she was politically strong enough to do so. As for Lisbon, it's the subject of one of my coursework essays so I'll let you know when I've finished it...

Meanwhile, the 1979 devolution referendums were the result of a minority Labour government facing opposition in its own ranks, notably from Neil Kinnock. And of course, once you'd had the 1979 referendums you had to have the 1997 ones, which begat the GLA referendum, which begat the North East regional referendum, which begat, which begat... Heck, if instead of specifically creating the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, Labour had gone the whole hog and established regional government for the whole UK (which is, of course, exactly what they should have done) the whole thing would have been essentially a local government reorganisation and you wouldn't even have needed the referendum on constitutional grounds.

For Wales, then, the IWA's picture is gloomy; a powers referendum that shouldn't be necessary, whose result will depend more on the wording of the question and the internal battles of the coalition over timing and that might be lost when losing it simply isn't an option. And now it may not even be the last word; Jack Straw has already said that any future move towards a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction would need a referendum, which for such a technical and fundamentally necessary reform is simply bonkers.

For Liberal Democrats, however, the IWA ask a far more searching question; what does this proliferation of referendums mean for representative democracy? Obviously we were talking about fixing the political process long before it became a hot button topic, but now that it is we shouldn't start pretending that every policy idea in that direction is sacrosanct. Saying as many do that we should put more issues to referendums is fine in and of itself, but when you're already talking about PR, an elected second chamber, votes at 16, election finance reform and power of recall, at some point you have to ask yourself what the result of all of that would be.

To put it another way, if we delivered PR, elected second chamber and election finance reform, three things we've only been promising since the neolithic, wouldn't that do the job? Or at the very least, isn't it worth giving those things a chance to do the job before jumping into things like referendums and recall powers that really do change the nature of democracy? Having suffered so long from the effects of a political system that was designed by throwing lumps of constitutional concrete into a pile and hoping it ended up as a house, I'd like to think we were employing a little architecture in sorting the mess out. Either way, I suspect the committee's report will be an interesting read for the Lib Dems and for everyone who's waiting for One Wales to get on with it.

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