Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The worship of the plebiscite

The concept of referendum has now become an object of worship for some people, complete with religious hysteria. Is this because the CofE has once again shown itself to be somewhat inadequate? Would it still work if we called it a plebiscite? Plebiscite is a nasty word that implies in its sound something that is done against the people, probably by conniving politicians for their own career.

Referendum is so very different. For one thing we cannot agree what its plural should be. Is it referenda because it is a Latin word or is it referendums because as a nominative noun it is an English word? Enough to make one feel that we are discussing something truly profound.

Then there is Switzerland where, as we know, they have referendums (my preferred nominative plural) all the time. We should do the same. There are, as it happens, differences between the Swiss system of referendums being called by the citizens of either a canton or the whole state and the plebiscites (no other way of putting it) decided on by governments and defined by them. The Swiss system evolved over centuries and simply trying to replicate one small aspect of it (the number of referendums) is not very useful.

All this leads us to Greece where, to our immense astonishment, evidence has emerged that Prime Minister George Papandreou (and, incidentally, there is a reason why so many Greek politicians are called Papandreou) has been planning this referendum for some time, possibly because he believes in the people having a final say in something or other or, more probably, because his own position has been somewhat tenuous for some months. EUReferendum traces the history of the development, rightly calling it Not Such A Surprise.

Even the Boss can't predict the next twist in the Greek farce (they wrote those as well but they were largely obscene) and freely admits it. (Ha! Don't often hear those words.) There is the confidence vote on Friday and Papandreou might well lose it even if he screams as loudly as he can that getting rid of him now is tantamount to depriving the people of their right to have a say. The answer to that is that getting rid of him would give the people the right to vote for another government and the answer to that is .... Well, you can write that exchange yourselves.

Then there is the peculiar episode of the military top brass, who has been replaced by Papa-friendly officers. What exactly does that mean? Not enough attention is being paid to the story, in my opinion.

It comes to something when the BBC rejoices in what they call Democracy versus the eurozone. One wonders whether they will be so strongly pro-democracy in other circumstances. For instance, will they, in the name of democracy give UKIP and others of that ilk equal say?

One must admit the piece is full of silliness though the quote from the ineffable Sarko is priceless:
giving people a voice is always legitimate but the solidarity of all eurozone countries is not possible unless each one agrees to measures deemed necessary.
So much for French notions of accountable government. But then we knew that.

I am not impressed by the BBC and many others bleating about Greek love of and pride in their democracy. Modern Greek history does not support that argument (and neither does Ancient Greek history, if it comes to that). Shall we just skip that and assume that Greece is a dysfunctional Balkan state whose people had no trouble whatsoever with the EU controlling it as long as that control involved lots of money handed over in one form or another with not too many strings attached. In fact, they would continue to have no trouble with getting endless bail-outs as long as they are not expected to do something about their spendthrift and non-productive economy. As I said yesterday a nation of petulant adolescents is not a pleasant sight.

It seems likely that Papandreou, if he is still there next week (and let us not forget those military changes) will organize a referendum in which acceptance of the package will be linked to membership of the eurozone. That, one assumes, will ensure a 'yes' vote as the Greeks do not really want to come out of the euro and take full responsibility for their economic mess. Now that really would cause austerity and shortages.

Is that what Papa wants? Maybe. Much depends on when that referendum is and how the question(s) is/are phrased. And before that, much depends on Friday's parliamentary vote. In the meantime, I have no doubt, they hysterical worship of the pagan god REFERENDUM will continue. I think I shall start referring to it as plebiscite. That'll show them. Oh, and the crisis will be resumed within weeks of whatever the Greek plebiscite vote might be, assuming there is one and, assuming it is about the eurozone and the bail-out package and not about giving Prime Minister Papandreou extraordinary powers.


  1. Following the example of the German referendums in the Thirties, the late Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote that no modern government could lose a referendum/plebiscite if it used the resources of the state to campaign for the answer it wanted. If you add to that the resources of the super-state, such as were brought to bear on Ireland, I think he might well be proved right - though, I am sure, he would have been delighted to be proved wrong.

  2. Lost in France and the Netherlands over the Constitution for Europe. In other places won only the second time round, which does not prove Sir Isaiah's point.