Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Westminster rainbow, and an apology

... as seen by people who "know better"

I thought, let's have a live debate. Instead of each of us squawking unregarded in his little internet cage, let's assemble in central London, at a politicos' watering-hole a step away from the Palace of Westminster, and sort the wheat from the chaff on the EU referendum issue. With any luck and a lot of promotion, we might get some politicians, spads and journalists in on the strength of topical enlightenment and a drink.

The time is right. Local and European Parliament elections are set for May 22nd and Parliament reconvenes on June 3rd, by which time we'll know the results.  This could be a bumper year* for UKIP, hence the roasting Nigel Farage received this week on HIGNFY.  Further ahead are the Scottish referendum on September 18th and the PM has spoken of a possible EU plebiscite in 2017 (Salmond is already connecting the two*).

Initially I tried for Monday 9th June - the first late-night session in the Commons. But the pub room is permanently booked Mondays, probably for exactly that reason. So I chose Thursday 5th instead, when the House rises at 5 pm and there might be energy left to stroll across the road for a liver-crippler.

What ought the motion to be? How about...

“Do we have a right to an EU referendum? (And if not, should we hold one anyway?)”

A referendum on sovereignty should not be merely an electoral inducement like promising tax cuts and better hospitals. It goes to the heart of our claim to be a democracy. But is there anything in our history, Constitution or legal system that asserts our entitlement? That hasn't yet been acknowledged in the circles that matter.

The 1975 "Common Market" referendum wasn't conceded as of right, either. Remember that we had already been in the EEC two and half years before it took place, and it was only granted because the National Front and more importantly the Labour Party were dead set on getting us back out.

That's the first question, is it a right in any sense (including moral and philosophical)? Then, if yes, is there any reason why we shouldn't exercise it? And if it's not a right, what are the pros and cons of a referendum, apart from temporary tactical political considerations?

Then I started to invite people to speak.

Among the off-centre personalities, A cautioned me (correctly) that mainstream politicians and advisers would shun the meeting if B was on the platform. I say correctly, because having initially indicated his willingness to participate, C - one of the mainstreamers and with potentially very valuable expertise and authority - then withdrew because A had given space on his site to ideas from the Freeman movement. I begged him to reconsider - see below.

But C then looked at B's site and rejected him, too, on the grounds of ideology but also because one of the latter's posts featured an infelicitous phrase likely to make a PC reader's antennae twitch irritably. Immediately afterward, C then noted with horror that I had given space on Broad Oak to consideration of both the Freeman movement (whose arguments I still struggle to understand) and the ECG campaign to prosecute what it sees as the British traitors in the EEC/EU saga. C then made it clear that he would have no further communication with me. There is no evidence that he had read my rationale of liberal debate - perhaps he was in too much of a hurry to wash off his hands the pitch with which I had defiled him merely by secondary association with those beyond his pale (in a week when HM the Queen herself shook hands and dined with Martin McGuiness).

So I thought "What's the point?", cancelled the room and sent apologies to all those I had invited so far.

I am now beginning to think that I was grossly in error to do so. I had ducked my head at the first shot, but then my nature is not especially combative and I grew up in a family where anything could be discussed. I'm not used to a garlic-and-crucifix reaction to ideas. To those others whom I did invite, I apologise sincerely for my intellectual cowardice; I think I am starting to rediscover my spine. I shall be making further enquiries to see if it is possible to get a range of views on this most vital constitutional issue, and let the illiberal recuse themselves.

Here, slightly edited, is part of what I wrote to C:

1. We shouldn't damn a man by the opinions of his associates, or those who may from time to time correspond with him. [...]

2. Even the worst differences of opinion end with signing something in a railway carriage, and yet it's far better to resolve them in rational debate. The two sides of the House of Commons are famously separated by the length of two swords.

3. There are certain matters where people need their understanding correcting before they go too far. We need to know more about the context and implications of Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, the common law and the gradual extension of the franchise.

4. We also need to put hotheads right. Burke's response to Dr Richard Price was not only an instrument of correction to Price (and one the latter clearly felt) but a fundamental reassessment and clarification of our political institutions and processes. He may well have saved us from following France into the abyss. What if he had simply refused to address Price's sermon?

5. The hotheads can be handled. [I give an example of a public interview that led to a change of mind].

6. Does it not also say something about the times that these fringe groups have sprung up? The undemocratic means and trends - commented on by both Tony Benn and Douglas Jay in the Debating Chamber - by which sovereignty has been ceded, are partly responsible for the sometimes reprehensible responses they have engendered. This suggests a need for the established power to justify itself openly in order to reassert its moral right to govern.

7. I would therefore beg you, most earnestly, to reconsider.
Perhaps it is not the political spectrum that counts, but the intellectual one, the one that measures capacity to consider ideas which one may possibly dislike.


 *htp for the links to James Higham


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James Higham said...

So where are we actually, at this stage, Sackers? Is it happening?

Sackerson said...

I wish for it to happen but there is no point unless we get a wide range of views and an agreement to listen to each other. It may be that C is an exception in which case I should welcome any assistance in canvassing support for a meeting to discuss the aguments for/against a referendum - not the endless arguments about the merits/demerits of the EU.

Tony Benn's 20 May 1993 speech in the Maastricht debate raises a serious legal question and I think it has to be answered:

"... not one hon. Member has the legal or moral authority to hand over the powers that they borrowed from their electors last April to people who will not be accountable to those whom we now represent."

Note the use of the word "legal". Tony Benn was a Privy Councillor, an MP for 41 years (or was it 43?) at that point, and NOT (as his speech makes clear) concerned with British sovereignty, which he regarded as irrelevant, but with the political rights of the people as exercised by their votes in electing MPs.

Surely this has to be answered.

Would you help in making such a gathering? I could re-book the room.