DAVID Cameron’s promised referendum on Europe will be the first in my lifetime, which began the year after the 1975 vote to remain in the Common Market. So to me the Prime Minister’s new commitment for a vote feels like both a victory and a defeat. It is a historic decision: after more than four decades (the vote still won’t happen until after 2015), the British public will issue a verdict on its relationship with the EU. It is also a national embarrassment: our democratic deficit is so vast that our elected elites have not dared to put their decisions on Europe to the vote since the fall of Saigon.
And Britain is hardly alone. One of the main rallying cries of those disaffected with the EU is its tenuous link to democratic accountability. And even as we celebrate the promise of a vote some have waited a lifetime to make, our leaders are jetting off to party with the powerful in Davos, a glittering bubble of groupthink for the globe’s self-segregating, self-congratulatory elite.
Cameron’s Tories came to power waving the metaphorical banner of localism. It was never the sort of full-blooded commitment laid out in Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell’s 2008 manifesto The Plan, or evangelised in Michael Portillo’s 2010 documentary Power to the People, but Cameron’s strategists had at least heard of those trends and pillaged a few of the less shocking initiatives.
The results have been meagre. Elected mayors, apart from in London, have not excited the popular imagination, with nine out of 10 cities voting against the proposal in 2012. Elected police commissioner elections were scheduled for the worst possible time last November, resulting in record low turnouts. Regulatory tinkering to support favoured causes means businesses must study every move at the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Quantitative easing from the Bank of England has kept all eyes on Sir Mervyn King and the MPC.
The truth is, Cameron has shown little concern for the consent of the governed. His trademark policy, the big society, is about intruding government into civic voluntarism, not limiting state power. He has created a nudge unit to make us make the decisions Number 10 decides are right. He believes he can always pick a winner, whether through a national industrial policy or by supporting green energy development.
It was always a mistake to imagine such a man could lead us to greater self-government. Even his decision to offer this long-delayed referendum is less to do with trusting the people and more to do with political calculation: an attempt to bring his party back under control while ensuring the verdict he wants. But his decision has offered the rest of us a glimmer of hope. While we wait for Cameron’s plan to play out, this vote should be a signal to reinvigorate direct democracy as a popular cause. It’s not just Brussels we need to renegotiate our relationship with, but Westminster as well.
Mark Sidwell is managing editor of City A.M.