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April 05, 2017


Dave Timoney

And yet ... there is a big difference between a permissive plebiscite ("Should Theresa May be made dictator?") and an indicative plebiscite ("Should we leave the EU?"). The latter ought to leave sufficient latitude of interpretation to allow representative politics back into the picture.

The problem today is that the indicative is being finessed into the permissive. Though some will no doubt blame this on the opposition, or the government's fear of the Brexit press, I think a major factor has been the increasingly "dictatorial" nature of the state since the 80s.

It's worth remembering that the plebiscite has historically been favoured by liberals and technocrats as much as populists and authoritarians.


A periodic multilateral root and branch review of binding treaty obligations might also be wise.

Once the powers-that-be have finagled a settlement unpicking it is even more difficult than reversing a plebiscite I'd imagine.

Matthew Moore

'perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learned in my adult life is that social affairs are complex and that knowledge and rationality are tightly bounded'

I couldn't agree more. I'm a relatively smart guy, and the number of times I screw up in my narrow area of expertise is amazing.

I draw the opposite conclusion though. Because of bounded knowledge, there is a massive burden of proof on any project to centralise political or economic power. The EU has not met this standard, by my lights, and I support further devolution from Westminster and Scottish independence for the same reason.

The EU has a core principle of subsidiarity, which has been utterly utterly ignored. The hubris of the Euro project is staggering.

The ratchet effect of the acquis removes the ability for us to throw the wrong 'uns out, an institutional need you rightly praise.

The referendum was fought in a pretty horrible manner, and I doubt it could have been won any other way. I regret the campaign, but can't bring myself to regret the result as a consequence.

Handy Mike

I keep waiting for at least one remain supporter to spot that with the 'supermajority' argument they are sawing at the branch they're sitting on. Can't be too long now.

Also, we need a neologism to name the fallacy, or at least the rhetorical failing, involved in thinking that one's argument is supported in any way at all merely by hyperlinking, except in the case of the hard sciences or other matters of more-or-less uncontested fact.

What, for example, if Michael Dougan is wrong about one or two things?


So 42% of the electorate took us into the EEC (67% voted Stay on 64% turnout) and 37% of the electorate took us out again (52% voted Leave on turnout of 72%). So two non-supermajority decisions have managed to get us back to the status quo when we started. Fine.

If we want to do the whole thing again, by all means demand a supermajority in favour of joining this time, and then there'd have to be a supermajority to leave as well.

But to accept that the initial vote In was fine, despite not being a supermajority, but the vote Out must be a supermajority is just pure one eyed partisanship masquerading as some sort of democratic principles.


«if plebiscite campaigns were conducted rationally and honestly and votes cast by reasonable, well-informed citizens. But this, of course, was not the case.»

Whether voting is rational and honest is quite irrelevant: the purpose of voting is to ensure that the voters suffer (or benefit) from their own choices, so that they have an incentive to make good choices. If they disregard that incentive, the resulting suffering is exactly what democracy is designed to deliver.


«Sensible polities set high bars for permanent changes, for example by requiring supermajorities for constitutional change.»

But «change» here is a very inappropriate gauge: because had "Remain" won 52% to 48%, a slim majority would have confirmed a very controversial lack of change.
Supermajorities tend to be required for *important* matters, usually both important and controversial, not for mere "change", even if usually it is change that is important and controversial.

In the case of EU membership "Remain" was as controversial and important an issue as "Leave".
Perhaps the rules of the referendum/plebiscite should have required a margin of at least 20% *either way*, with an insufficiently large margin either way meaning "vote again in 3-5 years time". Fat chance of course.

In any case the 1975 referendum was won by a supermajority, and all the subsequent EEC-EC-SEA-EU treaties were also enacted by Parliament with supermajorities.
The Lisbon treaty passed with a 346 to 206 division in 2008, which seems a pretty large supermajority.


I moved to California several years ago, and I vote no on initiatives as a default. The reason is two fold. First, there is no deliberation and no amendment process. You have to vote yea or nay on something that is by its nature not well thought out. (These days you sometimes get competing initiatives that are deceptively similar, the deception being on purpose.) Second, even your friends will screw you. You can read the text of an initiative that you generally agree with, and then there is a section that is not very clear. That's usually where they are screwing you, by including language that benefits unnamed special interests.

Still, all in all I think that the initiative process is not so bad. It gives legislators something to think about. They screw you over, too. They may get elected by being better than the other guy, but that does not give them carte blanche.


«(These days you sometimes get competing initiatives that are deceptively similar, the deception being on purpose. [ ... ] and then there is a section that is not very clear. [ ... ] language that benefits unnamed special interests.»

I wonder whether swiss referendums are similarly riddled with traps. I would suspect no, because someone trying that would burn their credibility.
I guess that it is a question of culture, and also of California referendums potentially being worth so much, probably up to hundreds of billions moving one way or another. High stakes too, not just different culture probably.


Hard-to-reverse changes are very much the conservative modus operandi:
- All the privatisations
- Globalisation
- Embedding private interests in other changes (eg charter schools, NHS commissioning) so these would need to be bought out at great expense to take things in-house again.

A.J. Maher

Old school British Marxists called the EEC/ EU "a bankers ramp". Obviously that must have changed but for the life of me I can't see why..


«Hard-to-reverse changes are very much the conservative modus operandi»

Because they are often rather more skilful than the progressives. Still the progressive side has done much to help things like the NHS, pensions, social insurance irreversible. Consider the case of right-wing designed Obamacare in the USA.

What the conservatives are more skilful with is using the "salami technique"/"boiling the frog method" to push through very large changes gradually, pushing the famous "Overton window" slowly for a long time. As described by M Thatcher in her letter to F Hayek:

«The progression from Allende's Socialism to the free enterprise capitalist economy of the 1980s is a striking example of economic reform from which we can learn many lessons. ... At times the process may seem painfully slow. But I am certain we shall achieve our reforms in our own way and in our own time. Then they will endure.»


«Old school British Marxists called the EEC/ EU "a bankers ramp".»

Both a reasonable point and a vacuous one: the *state* is a "a bankers ramp", whether it is the national state or the EEC/EU. Banking and credit management are core state interests, and viceversa. Regulatory capture, or viceversa, is not exactly a new concept.

For the UK the City, Westminster and Whitehall are just different facets of the same "establishment".

The EEC/EU involves a bit more diversity and competition among the somewhat different interests of the various component states and establishments, which opens some degrees of freedom more than far more homogeneous and complicit establishments like in England.

What is the alternative to the government being the bankers or the bankers being the government, which sound different but are pretty much the same thing?
Not so easy to answer...


The problem with the Brexit vote is that it was a one way bet. As Farage said, if they lost they would again campaign for another referendum. But Brexit won and there is no serious call for a second referendum.

A.J. Maher

Blissex - thanks for the clarification which was as vacuous as it was meaningless.

Obviously, to a Marxist, the state under capitalism is always and everywhere the agent of capital. But when the Marxists of yore were campaigning against the EEC it was because they saw it as a reactionary and retrograde ploy directed against the only weapon the working classes had. However insufficient a weapon the power to vote policy down was a weapon.

As we witnessed in Athens the difference between a a bankers ramp (capitalist state) constrained by democratic accountability and a supranational bankers ramp (capitalist state) governing under treaty prerogative and unconstrained by democracy were not differences in degree but differences in kind. When Schauble told Varoufakis that democracy made no difference he completely vindicated the opposition of the old Marxists to the EU....

Igor Belanov

"When Schauble told Varoufakis that democracy made no difference he completely vindicated the opposition of the old Marxists to the EU.... "

But any old or new Marxist worthy of the name should realise that it is essentially capitalism that is restricting democracy, not the EU.

David Jones

'The Lisbon treaty passed with a 346 to 206 division in 2008'

After is had already been rejected as the European Constitution.


A written constitution might have helped put boundaries on this. I see some are focusing on the ends rather than the means (which is what Chris is talking about).

The point is well made here by Paul Evans ahead of the AV Referendum: https://sluggerotoole.com/2010/12/13/why-referendums-should-be-banned/

When you set your representatives to a task the majority of them don't believe in, expect more than a few odd ruckles in the system.

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