An Idiot’s Referendum

People of all political colours are clamouring to answer a meaningless question.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 11th September 2007

Is the new European treaty a good or a bad thing? Should you be allowed to vote for it, or should the decision be left to the politicians? The answer is no. What I mean by this is that no meaningful question has been asked.

The coalition demanding a referendum now stretches all the way from the rightwing headbangers of the UK Independence Party to Britain’s fiercest trade union, the RMT. It has been joined by several progressive Labour MPs and, yesterday, by the Guardian’s columnist Jackie Ashley(1). All maintain that we should be allowed to say whether or not we like the new treaty. At first sight this call for a national referendum looks like a radical one. In truth it reflects not only the poverty of our political choices but also the poverty of our political demands. Whether or not we are allowed to vote, we are still treated like idiots.

The new document is currently an incomprehensible mess of insertions and amendments, but as far as I can tell it proposes or refers to 448 articles, each of which contains several clauses(2). Many of them are contradictory. To draw out one of the few threads in this dreadful tangle that I can follow, the treaty speaks of “preserving, protecting and improving the quality of the environment”(3). It also calls for new trans-European road networks and a continuation of the common fisheries policy. So if you vote yes to it, does this mean that you want the environment protected or that you want it destroyed? It means you want both. It seems, to my inexpert eye, that there are similar contradictions on employment, economic policy, culture and defence.

A referendum containing a single question is as disempowering as leaving the decision to other people. If the treaty contains 448 articles, we should be permitted to answer a set of questions which reflects this breadth: not 448 perhaps, but at least a few dozen. Otherwise we have no means of expressing what we want: Europe good or bad is meaningless if we are not permitted to define what Europe represents. You might think that voting on a long list of questions sounds crazy. If so, it shows how far short of true democracy your demands now fall. If we are not competent to make these decisions, we are not competent to determine whether our representatives are making the right decisions on our behalf.

At present, the whole political system works like this. We elect a government on the basis of a manifesto containing hundreds of proposals. Probability suggests that a few thousand open-minded people might agree or disagree with all of them. Everyone else will favour some policies and reject others. But the new government interprets its victory as public support for every item in the manifesto, except those that it decides to drop. The moment we seek to refine our choice, by protesting against one of the proposals we are deemed to have supported, we are told that we are being undemocratic: the people have spoken – who are we to disagree? In the meantime, corporate lobbyists glide through government offices, reshaping policies to suit their commercial needs.

Unlike Tony Blair, Gordon Brown appears to understand some of this. He has rightly perceived that the credibility of government is profoundly threatened by an absence of participation – at the ballot box, on party membership lists, in formulating policy. Representative politics today looks like a dried-out crab shell. The political exoskeleton is intact, but the flesh inside has shrivelled up. So he talks of participatory democracy, of citizens’ juries, of wider and deeper consultations.

Look more closely at what Brown is proposing and you perceive that he is offering us what he cannot deliver, while withholding what he can. A prime minister cannot create grassroots politics. The initiative has to come from us. It is true that we have mostly failed, and part of me applauds Brown’s effort to fill the gap. But the danger is that he creates what public relations agencies call an astroturf campaign: a fake grassroots movement.

His proposals for a new participatory democracy carry grave democratic dangers. Citizens’ juries are an excellent tool for direct decision-making: when a small group of people needs to make a decision which affects only that group. If everyone joined one and the results were collated on a national scale, they could also be an excellent tool for democratising national decision-making. But this is not what Brown proposes. He speaks of a “Citizens Summit, composed of a representative sample of the British people”, which will be asked to formulate a British statement of values, and “a nationwide set of Citizens Juries” in which “representatives assembled from every constituency” will help to shape policies on crime, immigration, education, health, transport and public services(4). In what sense will these samples be representative? Will we be allowed to vote for these people? It looks like an opaque amalgam of representative and participatory processes, selecting the most dangerous aspects of both.

I have followed the politics of development planning for long enough to recognise that public consultation is even easier to manipulate than parliamentary politics. In several cases I have seen how fake consultations have been used to manufacture consent among unwilling populations, giving a semblance of democracy to decisions which have already been made by property developers and venal councillors(5). This is by no means an argument against consultation or participation, just a warning that it is not a magic formula for democratic renewal. Every process can be corrupted: all forms of democracy require perpetual vigilance.

While Brown cannot create a grassroots mobilisation, he could give us a re-democratisation of the representative system. But his speech last week was more remarkable for what it left out than for what it contained. How could he talk of “a new type of politics which embraces everyone in the nation” without mentioning proportional representation? If he really wants us to make direct decisions about important issues, why can we not be permitted to vote in a series of referenda, each of which would contain a list of questions? Why, despite the fact that it was billed for inclusion, did he say nothing of corporate power and its corrosive effect on both political decision-making and public trust?

As he opens one door, he slams others shut. Two months ago, he quietly scrapped England’s regional assemblies and handed their powers to the business people running the regional development agencies(6). Is this what he means by “a vibrant reformed local democracy”? Now he is trying to do the same thing to democracy within the Labour party, shifting powers currently held by the conference to the national policy forum(7). How does that correspond to his call for political parties to “broaden their appeal to articulate the views of more than the few”?

Though Brown’s intentions might be good, the new politics looks like a new con, another means of creating an impression that the political crab still lives, while the corporate maggots jostle beneath the carapace. The danger is not just that his proposals will fail to revitalise the current political model. The greater danger is that they will legitimise it.


1. Jackie Ashley, 10th September 2007. Come on, Gordon – give us a referendum on the EU. The Guardian.

2. Conference of the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States, 23 July 2007. Draft Treaty Amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty Establishing the European Community.

3. Article 233 of the original treaty is, as far as I can tell, unamended by the new draft, but appears to have been renumbered. Who knows? You can read it here: European Union, 2005. Treaty Establishing a New Constitution for Europe.

4. Gordon Brown, 3rd September 2007. Speech to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations.

5. See for example George Monbiot, 2000. Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain. Macmillan.

6. HM Treasury, July 2007. Review of sub-national economic development and

7. See for example Seumas Milne, 6th September 2007. This will only feed the sense that politics is an elite racket. The Guardian.