The political classes and the media should seize on the reform treaty referendum as an opportunity to spread understanding and get people talking.
I’ll keep this brief (my wife says my blog is the most boring in Britain. She may have a point). A referendum is a deliberative device. It only works if voters understand the proposition they’re asked to vote on. In fact votes solicited by politicians or lobbyists in a referendum are democratically valueless if the voters don’t understand the issue.
This brings me to my questions for you referendum monkeys. First, have you read the draft treaty? Second, do you understand it? Third, if you answered ‘yes’ to the first two questions, could you explain the treaty to another grown-up?
If those who want a referendum get their way we have a real democratic problem on our hands. We’ll have a few months (I assume) to get every elector up to speed on the reform treaty ready for the vote. The draft treaty runs to 253 pages.
There are plenty of summaries online. The Telegraph has a handy, and obviously rather partial, Q&A and a brief survey of attitudes to the treaty elsewhere in Europe. The Government’s own summary is useful but you’d be entitled to regard it as partial in the other direction (especially when read with its companion EU reform treaty myths).
The Guardian’s Q&A is a bit thin to be honest and there’s surprisingly little going on at the Centre for European Reform, apart from this think piece by Hugo Brady. The BBC’s ‘A close look at the reform treaty‘ by Stephen Mulvey wins the helpful summary competition hands down. The comedy prize goes to this mendacious ‘look back from the year 2020’ by Andrew Roberts in The Mail.
The Sun (and Girls Aloud) are running a campaign. You’ll probably want to read the treaty too, won’t you. It’s in four parts (PDFs): draft preamble, articles 1-7, protocols and draft declaration and doesn’t stoop to providing any kind of summary of its own, leaving that, I assume, to member governments and the media.
My own summary: a referendum held without wide public understanding of the treaty’s purpose and likely effects would be a travesty, a democratic pantomime. I don’t think of this as a reason to pass on a referendum, though, but rather as an unprecedented opportunity to actually explain the treaty.
A national effort with major government and media investment to summarise and explain the document while providing tools for debate and deliberation would be a wonderful thing. I can see a competition, for instance, to produce the best online explanatory tool, the best schools’ information pack, the best newspaper pull-out or the best unorthodox outreach method (Catherine Tate? Dizzee Rascal? Balamory?). Let’s see if we can’t turn this messy episode into a shining example of deliberative democracy in action.