Today, David Cameron said he would consider a referendum on the UK’s EU relationship, when the time was right. But who decides ‘when the time is right’? This question has bedevilled the debate (if that is what you can call it) in Britain since the 1980s over the EU. Party leaders from Blair to Cameron have all, at one point or another and for different reasons, said that they thought a referendum would/might be necessary at some point over relationships with the EU and then have wedeled their ways out of it. The Lisbon Treaty was not about fundamental constitutional change, so no referendum is necessary, for instance. Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves refused to rule out ‘the possibility’ of her party holding a referendum once the future shape of Europe became clearer, but she said Mr Cameron's position on Europe was ‘a shambles’. She may be right but then the position of party leaders on Europe has for several decades been a shambles; Cameron is simply one of several leaders who have held out the possibility of a referendum when the time was right. It is not just cynics like me who suggest that ‘when the time is right’ really means ‘when I can win’.
As politics appears, in the wake of successive banking and tax avoidance scandals and the bankruptcy of the notion that ‘we’re all in this together’, to be lurching towards a moral imperative, it is important to ask whether this is simply a political ploy to assuage public anger or whether there are moral standards that should be expected even in the essentially amoral world of politics. There has been a seismic shift in away from a deferential acceptance of the merits of representative democracy towards one in which democracy is increasingly seen as something in which people should actively participate. This poses a real dilemma for political elites in Britain and the EU. Should they not act on the admitted short-termism of public opinion and plough on with their elitist pretensions of knowing ‘when the time is right’ or should they embrace it and revitalise what increasingly looks like a tired democracy and give it a fresh legitimacy in which political decisions are not simply what is possible politically but what is morally right? It is true I think that the moral purpose of democracy has been ignored or mislaid in recent decades by the enormities that governments face and where elitist decision-making has downgraded the institutional basis of democracy. It is easier for political elites to make decisions (and it is sometimes necessary that they should do this) not taking publically-expressed opinion into account and justifying this by saying that this is what they were elected to do. But this is increasing regarded as a thread-bare explanation for political decision-making and one that the public recognise as such. One reason for falling participation in elections, at whatever level, is the view that it doesn’t matter which politicians you elect, you get the same old thing. Politics has become a process for doing things political elites decide are necessary rather than the expression of deeply held beliefs and moral standards. It has been ‘de-ideologised’.
The British political system has been grounded in representative principles for centuries: we elect people to represent us but they are not our delegates mandated to do as we wish but to represent our views and then make decisions based on their own consciences or party dictats. When there were fundamental ideological differences between political parties, this proved a vibrant democratic structure but those fundamental ideological differences are today less clear as all political parties have moved to the middle ground. Ideological differences and the political policies that stem from these differences are increasingly a matter of degree, subtle rather than stark, a case of angels on a pin-head. We have a democracy in which politicians shade into each other, frequently agree that something needs to be done but only disagree about the details not the principles: for instance, austerity or slower austerity. It is the vision that is lacking, the overarching belief that politics is about producing a better world rather than just tinkering about at the edges. In that respect, the political elites are no longer in touch with the aspirations of their peoples and in that respect, ‘possibility’ and ‘when the time is right’ represent a bankrupt mantra of an increasingly bankrupt democracy. Whether you agreed with them or not, politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, Michael Foot, Nye Bevan, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill took a principled moral as well as political stand on issues in which they believed, something that is sadly lacking in many politicians today for whom self-aggrandisement seems to be their sole motivation. If representative democracy is to survive in Britain, it needs political leaders with principles that people will follow, not out of deference, but out of conviction.