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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Referendums on anything you want - just not the EU Constitution

So many politicians seem to be banging on about referendums and people power at the moment.

But curiously none of them seem keen on a referendum on the issue that is actually on the table - the revived EU Constitution. Perhaps it is some kind of psychological displacement activity?


Fleshing out his policy platform, Mr Huhne promised to give the public a referendum on new laws where there was a certain level of demand.

He suggested that 2.5% support for a vote could be enough to trigger a vote if it was registered within 100 days of the legislation's passage through Parliament.

"We need a people's veto to block unwanted law," he said, adding that it would introduce a new check on the "overweening" powers of the executive.


"One lesson of the last 15 plus years since the fall of the Berlin Wall is that democracy and its practice are learnt slowly - but also that they need to be learnt from the bottom up. (Some of the problems of British government are that we have forgotten this lesson and allowed local democracy to weaken - hence the repeated government efforts, including under the new government, to give more power to local government). It is not glib to talk about the local roots of self government. At the beginning of the American revolution Thomas Paine understood this. He said "Let the crown be demolished and scattered among the people whose right it is".


A referendum would be "inevitable" if plans to give the UK a written constitution go ahead, a minister says.

Justice minister Michael Wills said any "fundamental alteration in the powers of Parliament" was likely to make a vote by the public necessary.

Politicians are perfectly happy to bang on about giving more power to the people - as long as it doesn't actually ever happen. You want a referendum on the European Constitution? Forget it. There is definitely something in the idea that public dislike of politicians is driven in large part by perception of their pointlessness.

But it is also driven by the perception that so much of what politicians say is guff. And vague guff too. As Harry Frankfurt argued in his famous essay:

"Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. "

"On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires. "

"This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, colour, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.”"

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