Posts Tagged ‘parliament’

PointofViewIf the UK media can be believed the British public is clamouring for a greater use of referenda. People, they say, crave a direct say in determining the outcome of a debate or to dictate the direction of government action. Two issues dominate this thinking. The first is the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union and the second is the forthcoming vote on Scottish independence.

You may wonder why the media is behaving like this when they know as well as I do that we have a settled mature system of parliamentary democracy where decisions are taken by Parliament and the Government on our behalf. Every citizen is able to vote for their Member of Parliament and if they don’t like the way they have voted they can vote for someone else next time. However the reality is that a growing number of voters feel alienated or perhaps feel distant from the business of government and, God help us, politics!! In such circumstances a single issue referendum can appear attractive.

ReferendumDice1However, without being too condescending about it, most public issues are quite complex and few members of the public have the knowledge, expertise and in particular the time to get to grips with the pros and cons of arguments. That’s why, in theory, we have MPs appointed as government ministers who specialise in the affairs of a particular government department and who enjoy the support of experts and administrators of all kinds. Most importantly, ministers are accountable to Parliament, and MPs to the public who elected them, and they can be kicked out every five years in elections if we don’t like what they have done in our name. I contend that most people are busy enough with their own lives to be expected to additionally become experts in the pros and cons of, say, a parliamentary bill or a particular Government policy.

In my view referenda are a gift to obsessives and those with an axe to grind. They reduce issues to their bare essentials and ignore the broader consequences. I have no doubt that the death penalty would be brought back if the issue was subjected to a referendum. Would we really want that? Secondly the arguments for and against membership of the EU are extremely complex and in my view are impossible to whittle down to a simple yes or no answer.

ReferendumDice2There are exceptions of course, but rarely an issue does emerge that merits a referendum and I concede that for the people of Scotland the question of independence is one. However in my experience the media, and in particular certain ‘right wing’ print media, are greatly exaggerating the extent to which the public generally is clamouring for more referenda. Contrary to what they say there is very little evidence to support the assertion that public discourse in the pubs and clubs of the land is dominated by discussion on the need for a referendum on the EU. In fact the limited public surveys completed show that the European issue comes way down the list of subjects being discussed.

I do not consider myself to be an apologist for the status quo and I agree that politics in the UK is not conducted particularly well and certainly not in the interests of ordinary people. However I don’t believe a greater use of referenda is the answer as I fear that they would risk undermining the very principle of parliamentary democracy itself. This would be a perverse outcome when so many nations around the world are currently fighting to overturn unelected regimes in favour of parliamentary democracies.

Instead we should be considering steps to invigorate our parliamentary system to make it more relevant and accountable to the electorate and especially to younger voters, who if Russell Brand is to be believed, have given up on voting. Clearly this task is not helped by the low standing afforded to politicians by the public. There is a lack of trust and confidence in MPs that they can have any meaningful impact on our lives as UK citizens. Additionally many people are cynical and distrustful of all politicians believing them to be all the same and full of self-interest. The expenses debacle and to an extent the Iraq war, were clearly contributory factors. (more…)

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PointofViewHe who neglects what is done for what ought to be done sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.’  Machiavelli – The Prince – 1532

In response to the demands of the Scottish Parliament (controlled by the majority Scottish Nationalist Party) the UK Government has agreed to hold a referendum in Scotland on the question of Scotland’s independence from the UK. This is due to be held in 2014. Already the ‘NO’ camp and the ‘YES’ camp have been set up fronted by prominent politicians and personalities to campaign for their case in the lead up to the vote in 2014.

Map of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland

Map of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland

However, the debate around Scottish independence has been increasingly bothering me. It’s not that I have strong feelings either way about Scottish independence but it’s the way we’re going about it that bugs me.

Whether we live in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, we are all citizens of the United Kingdom, our nation state. As such we all elect our members of parliament from local constituencies throughout the UK and we all travel with UK passports when we venture beyond our island shores. We know that the UK is made up of four distinct nations, three of which have devolved government with their own parliament or assemblies composed of their own elected members, with the exception of England which kind of gets by without any of these legislatures.

Flag of Scotland, also known as the Saltire or the St Andrew's Cross

This road sign on the A1 road near Lamberton marks the border between England and Scotland. The sign’s design comes from the Flag of Scotland or the Saltire, a diagonal white cross on a blue background. The saltire stems from Parliament of Scotland having decreed in 1385 that Scottish soldiers shall wear a white Saint Andrew’s Cross on their person.

This network of governance seems to me to be at least some kind of bond that unites us all as part of the UK. Now I could mention the Crown and the Royal family but really that’s an entirely separate issue of interest and, for me, great concern and I shall leave that for another time.The point that troubles me here is that while I can accept the people of one or more of our existing nations can decide that they would like to break away from the UK and become independent, it surely doesn’t stop there. Don’t we all have a right to have a say on the continuing status and perhaps existence of the UK? Don’t we all have a stake in the sanctity of our nation state?

In my mind there should be a clear process to follow that respects the views of all UK citizens, or at least the majority of them. Simply speaking such a process would look something like this.

Stage 1.  The people of an existing nation and their elected representatives campaign for and get a majority in favour of independence.

Stage 2. A ballot is held of all peoples in the nation concerned to test the degree of support for independence.   If a majority votes in favour then,

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