I spent the last few days listening to vox pops from Greek streets as people were asked how they intended to vote in the referendum. I asked myself how I might vote, if I’d been one of them. It was a question I couldn’t quite answer.
Partly it is a general problem with referendums. Superficially they appear to be the very model of how democracy ought to work. A simple question is asked, and the people debate the merits and make their decision. The results are then held to be binding – until the next referendum comes along.
But in reality, a referendum is not necessarily ‘democratic’ at all. After all, modern democracy is not “dictatorship of the majority”, but must also maintain and uphold minority rights and space for differing opinions. Not so in a referendum, which is clearly why historically referendums and plebiscites have been favoured by dictators and authoritarian rulers to add a veneer of legitimacy to their power.
The Greeks voted on a lengthy and technical question where what mattered was not what voters thought of the merits or otherwise of forms of debt restructuring. It was simpler and more visceral than that. The ‘No’ option meant strengthening the negotiating position of the government, and sticking one in the eye to the Germans. The ‘Yes’ option meant a finger up to Syriza. That’s about it. Satisfying, but meaningless.
For there is far too much emotion in this issue, and not enough reason. Too much history, too, of there wrong sort, the simplistic ‘nation’s story’ stuff, as favoured by Tory education secretaries through the ages. Greece styles itself Europa, the begetter of Western civilisation, turned tragic heroine through endless, unearned calamity. Meanwhile the stern Calvinists of the North defend the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism from the Bacchanalians and Epicureans of the warm South. Each wilfully misunderstands the other.
So where might reason lead? That’s not a comfortable place, either. We cannot rewrite the past. The European project was a fine and honourable one, and has done much good for a Europe whose history has been one of shifting boundaries and almost continuous warfare. This ensured that the emergence from the utter devastation of the Second World War was relatively swift, and accompanied by unimagined levels of prosperity for many. But the tangible gains of six, nine, twelve nations have led to a mindset that what was good for the founding nations was infinitely exportable.
Some brave decisions were taken in the 1980s (despite the British PM shouting “No,no,no” at pretty much everything). The European project had secured democracy in Germany and Italy, and so, it was thought, it could do the same for nations emerging from fascist dictatorships, or, indeed, from the heavy hand of the church or the state. It couldn’t have been known that far from there being time to consolidate political and economic reform and standards of good governance in Spain, Portugal, Greece (and Ireland), by the end of the decade the Berlin Wall would be down and the Soviet Union on the edge of collapse.
Europe widened fast. The logic of that expansion may have been clear, but perhaps it happened at the expense of consolidating change in the older member states. Today the spotlight is on Greece, but other countries have their problems, too. Slower expansion, deeper change, and above all, a proper consideration of ensuring the democratic legitimacy of European institutions would probably have been more successful in the longer term. Britain does bear a share of the blame for all this. Our Prime Ministers were cheerleaders for expansion, falsely seeing it as being in opposition to “deepening cooperation” (i.e. federalism, in Eurosceptic eyes).
And so we arrive here, with one nation in the very position the EU was supposed to make impossible, and with no obvious happy ending in sight. I’ll leave the economists to squabble over the numbers and the answers. The politicians must now stand up and address the questions of how democracy is supposed to work in Europe, not just in resolving disputes between rival governments of different persuasions, but in growing cross-national democratic legitimacy and accountability for European institutions.
We, too, face a referendum. Ours will have a longer campaign and a shorter question, but like the Greek snap poll yesterday, it will mean something other than the words on the ballot paper, it will carry an element of judgement on the performance of our government, and it could lead to something awful – or to nothing at all.