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4 January 2013

Heresy of the week: An in/out referendum will not solve all of our problems

In the latest edition of Radio 4’s Beyond Belief, Ernie Rea and his guests discussed the place of apocalyptic prophecies in the modern world.

As demonstrated by the fuss surrounding the end of the Mayan calendar, there is no doubt that predictions of doom continue to exert a powerful hold on the human imagination. But why? One of Rea’s guests put it down to our pre-occupation with death, but another – more convincing – explanation is that our fascination with the apocalyptic is all about a longing for profound change in the world and in our lives.

This isn’t an exclusively religious impulse. There are secular equivalents, especially on the left – whose extremists have always looked forward a new order ‘come the revolution’. Conservatives, on the other hand, have traditionally opposed the notion of sudden transformative change, believing that only the Almighty can bring about a ‘New Heaven and a New Earth.’ 

Yet, as noted before on the Deep End,  some modern-day rightwingers are increasingly behaving like the lefties of yore. The British right even has its own secular apocalypse now – withdrawal from the European Union. Furthermore, as with all the best doomsday cults, they aim to bring matters to a head – by means of a referendum.

Indeed, the very promise of an in/out referendum is believed to have transformative power. Here, for instance, is Dan Hannan in a recent post for his Telegraph blog:

  • “When the Conservative Party trusts the electorate on the question of the EU, its trust will be reciprocated. Conservatives will start getting the benefit of the doubt on other issues. Tory activists will be optimistic again, the decline in membership will be halted and Right-of-Centre newspapers will recover their enthusiasm. Everything will feel different. You'll see.”

For Hannan this is all about trust:

  • “Tory modernisers were quick to identify their main negative, namely the impression that they – like all politicians – were in it for themselves and prepared to say anything to get elected. They have been slower to admit that Europe has, for 40 years, been the chief reason that politicians are thought to be shysters. Even voters who are not especially exercised about Brussels resent broken promises.”

This is a powerful point. Forty years ago, we were taken into Europe on a false prospectus, and no British government has been completely straight with us since. 

The problem, though, is with the idea that promising a referendum can suddenly make everything right between the Conservative Party and electorate. After all, David Cameron has never actually promised an in-out referendum. He has, however, promised the elimination of the deficit, the ‘greenest government ever’, a ‘big society’, ‘no top-down re-organisation of the NHS’ and to make Britain ‘the most family-friendly country in Europe’.

By all means let's have an in/out referendum. But let’s not kid ourselves: even if Britain votes to leave, we’ll still wake up the next morning with most of our problems very much with us.


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