Explaining the inexplicable

Tories, pop media and now Labour rebels want us to vote on a European Treaty that’s barely readable, largely incomprehensible and hardly consequential. Why?

UK Legislators have got the referendum bug again. Nothing wrong with that: asking your electorate to decide on really big questions has a long and noble history. This referendum, though, if it happens, will be a travesty of democracy. The problem is that no one in the electorate understands the treaty we’re asked to vote on (I blogged about this before).

The Lisbon Treaty is not wicked or dangerous. It won’t undermine our democracy and it won’t smear the States of old Europe into a single, continent-wide suburb of Brussels. It is a mess, though: it’s shabby, incoherent and compromised. The whole thing feels arbitrary and reeks of political contingency. People close to its drafting have even said that it’s been written in this awkward, occluded way deliberately because the lofty, Napoleonic terms of the constitution it replaces obviously stuck in the throats of quite a lot of ordinary Europeans.

And it’s on this compromised, difficult document that the Tories (and their new friends on the Labour back benches) want us to vote. They want us to absorb and understand the European Treaty which, in its amended form runs to over 330 pages. This, of course, is ridiculous. It’s worse: it’s anti-democratic. It says “screw democracy. We’re looking for some short-term electoral advantage.”

The Liberals, it pains me to say, have responded to this difficulty in a rather creative way. They say we shouldn’t be required to vote on the treaty itself but rather on the simpler (and obviously much larger) issue of whether we should stay in the EU at all.

So we have some options: the government’s approach, which is to rely on the mechanisms of representative democracy and shoo the thing through parliament in 12 days of debate; the Tories’ approach, which is to hold a meaningless referendum on a topic that’s essentially too complicated to understand or the Liberal approach, which is to sidestep the treaty and vote on Europe itself.

Or, it occurs to me, we could treat this is a genuine and quite exciting opportunity to produce some democratic engagement and explain the bloody treaty

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Gordon Brown Nein Danke

nuclear warning symbolDamn. Since I last posted here things have gone from bad to worse. Britain is now officially governed by what I think the kids call a ‘flake’. My early impression of Gordon Brown as Labour’s dreadnought, a politically impregnable battleship of prudence and good judgment, has all but evaporated. Who’s writing his script? Yesterday he called Hain’s donor gaffe ‘an incompetence.’

What’s the difference between ‘an incompetence’ and ‘incompetence’? No idea. Although I suspect it’s probably about a mile-and-a-half of choppy political water. Brown could bring himself neither to condemn Hain (‘he was incompetent. He’s history’) nor to get behind him (‘Shut up you bunch of ninnies: he’s done nothing wrong and he’s staying’) so we wound up with the miserable, indecisive non-phrase: ‘an incompetence’. I’m dumbfounded and more than a bit worried. And now a Northern Rock nationalisation: another epic opportunity for indecision. God save us.

Still, at least we’ve got a revival of nuclear power to look forward to. I’m actually in favour. I think that our objections (I was a long-time anti too) are all based on the first- and second-generation kit that’s currently rotting at various out-of-the-way coastal locations – and which, of course, we have to deal with whether or not we decide to build new plants.

Objectors have got a skewed picture of nuclear power’s risks. Even taking into account the half-a-dozen major incidents since the 1950s nuclear has killed hardly anyone. Add up the deaths directly attributable to emissions from even a modern coal-fired plant and you’ll see what I mean. Don’t get me wrong: meltdown and catastrophic contamination are not trivial risks but we must weigh them properly alongside the risks of pursuing existing high-carbon base load sources and of acting too slowly to fill the inevitable power supply gap.

The grim statistical truth is that even the real risk of an occasional major disaster will be dwarfed by the reduced long-term pressure on climate and on vulnerable coastal communities, for instance. Climate change really does change everything.

Current nuclear tech is streets ahead of the Heath Robinson plants of the first wave. Look at this marvelous self-contained, neighbourhood-sized unit from Toshiba (by the way, I love this site map). You could fit one in your garage and it would heat and light hundreds of homes for forty years. It also, according to the experts, presents vastly reduced risk of overheating. While we’ve been at a nuclear standstill the rest of the world has been moving the technology on. It’s time we caught up.

Speaking of climate change, I guess you’ll have seen this terrific risk assessment from Greg on YouTube. I’m no logician but his thesis looks sound to me. Right or wrong, though, I’m terrifically impressed by the video’s author, a high school science teacher, apparently. I think this is a great example of the top end of citizen media: confident, thought-provoking, authoritative. I do hope he’s got himself a proper movie deal or a substantial research grant by now.

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