Oi! referendum monkeys!

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.

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  1. I note you don’t try and say what it is about.
    What I keep reading is
    a) the treaty covers all sorts of different things, some better than others, so saying yes or no to it in a vote is a bit tricky.
    b)People will never vote on the actual treaty, but on their general feelings about the government at that moment (and the way things are going at the moment, that’s a no)
    c)What the fuck do we do if we get a NO vote?
    d)Take me, I’m voting yes – yet I have frankly no idea what’s in the treaty. I just know that it can’t be a very bad thing on the whole …

    Last point … what referendum?

  2. I think Brown’s being manoeuvered into a position where he’ll find it politically difficult to refuse a referendum. A month ago I’d have said he’d probably just butch it out but his recent vulnerability suggests otherwise. He should turn the tables, invest a hundred million in explaining the treaty (and the EU) to Joe Public, then hold the referendum and win with ease. That would shut UKIP up for a while…

  3. I think the argument that in about 10 years the only people on the planet who will have any say will be the leaders of USA, Russia, China and India is an interesting backdrop to this question. In 2017, will any of the aforementioned listen to the UK if it isn’t tightly bound up with the EU block? And does that matter?

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