Saturday night’s Strictly Come Dancing demonstrates the case for having a referendum on EU membership.
What I mean is that any man watching SCD has a dilemma. On the one hand, we want Robbie Savage out, for serial crimes against football and taste. On the other hand, though, we want to keep Ola Jordan in the competition for obvious reasons.
When we are asked to vote, then, we’re being asked to express an opinion about a bundle of things: Ola’s merits and Robbie’s demerits. And this means that it’s hard to interpret the public’s preferences; are the couple still in the competition because we approve of Robbie’s dancing, or because we love Ola?
This, of course, is exactly the problem with conventional party politics. When invited to vote for a party, we’re asked to vote on a bundle of policies and personalities, some unpleasant, like Savage, and some not. And just as in SCD, this means preferences can’t be clearly expressed.
This applies to the EU. David Nuttall’s claim that 84% of us have never had the chance to vote in EU membership isn’t quite right. Anyone over the age of 46 could have voted Labour in the 1983 election, as they wanted to withdraw from the EU. But I suspect Mr Nuttall and other Tories didn’t do this, because the Olaesque attractiveness of leaving the EU was bundled up with the Robbie Savage of the rest of Labour’s manifesto*.
The case for a referendum is simply that, in unbundling options, public preferences can be more clearly expressed.
So what are the counter-arguments? There are two.
One is transactions costs. Sometimes, it’s just too costly to unbundle options. If we were to vote for or against either Ola or Robbie, SCD would get very complicated. Ola might end up having to dance with Alex (my blog, my fantasy). The parallel with the EU referendum is not so much the financial cost of organizing it, as the distraction of politicians’ time and effort from other tasks.
The second is pressed by Paul. If we give people the option of expressing a clear preference, we also give them the chance to express an irrational one. If we were to vote solely upon Robbie, our views might be affected by irrational hatred (as well as rational hatred). Bundling him up with Ola cools the passions, and allows for a more clear-headed assessment. Analogously, not holding a referendum might allow for a more rational debate, partly by prolonging the length of time over which it is held.
Now, I don’t have a view here one way or the other. My point is simply the one that has hitherto gone unnoticed - that there are striking similarities between Robbie Savage and the debate about an EU referendum.
* Actually, the Tory right wasn’t opposed to EU membership in the 80s; they were rather late to discover the merits of national sovereignty, but let that pass.