The international community must act to save the Rohingya Muslims

By Alex Bryan

One year since anti-Muslim violence broke out in Burma, the blood still flows and the deaths rack up. The Rohingya minority, stateless, discriminated against by virtue of their constitutional status as outsiders, remains the target of one of the most vicious series of ethnic attacks in the world at the the moment. The authorities have at times joined in these attacks; more often, the facilitate them or simply sit back and allow the killings to continue. Sadly, although the Rohingya are officially classed as ‘illegal migrants’, they have no homeland to which they can return. Nor can they simply flee; those that do risk rejection from other countries as well as the potential for bad weather conditions. Those who make it to Bangladesh, Thailand or Malaysia are often ‘pushed back’ from the borders, detained en masse, or arrested.

The discrimination in Burma has a long and inglorious history. It existed long before independence in 1946, and the Citizenship Act of 1982 defined Burmese citizenship in such a way as to exclude the Rohingya. Perhaps even worse than this is the refusal of the Burmese authorities to class the Rohingya as asylum seekers, instead condemning them to the lowest strata of society – the illegal migrant. The violence directed at Muslims in Burma for the last year has happened in a context of exclusion, of seeing the Muslims as ‘not fully human’. This can be seen not only in the violence, but also in the two child policy recently introduced.

The international attention on the violence has increased with time. The UN Human Rights Council President has voiced ‘deep concern’ about the killings. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also questioned the regime’s decision not to prosecute those who have enacted the attacks (indeed, it is often Rohingya themselves arrested after suffering terror attacks against them.) Unfortunately, this had had little to no impact on the regime’s course. In fact, the one piece of international intervention which could be seen to have altered the course of history was President Obama’s visit and meetings with President Thein Sein. Obama said he hoped the violence would stop. It has not, and his trip may been seen to have legitimised the regime.

International action is necessary to stop the systematic murder of the Rohingya people. Inside Burma, the figure those who protested against the regime, Aung San Suu Kyi, is now a member of the government, and has stayed shamefully silent on the issue. Attempts to stop the killings by foreign forces will almost certainly attempt to reach out to her first. Unfortunately, her tight-lipped attitude to the massacres bodes ill for any who do so.

One of the reasons for the relatively small pressure being exerted on Burma is that, nationally, this does not fit into the narrative the media have presented over the past few years of a Burma moving towards democracy, liberalising their economy, releasing political prisoners and allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to walk the streets again. Hence, viewers (on the rare occasion such stories are run on major news bulletins) tend to see them within a wider narrative of progress rather than one of discrimination, thus underestimating the problem.

The international community and national governments cannot absolve themselves of responsibility. The central foreign policy focus for the majority of major nations at the moment is the Syrian civil war and the ongoing power struggle in Egypt. As important as these two events are, they must not take up all the foreign policy political space. The attacks on the Rohingya have been persisting for the last 12 months. They show no signs of stopping organically, nor of being stopped by the Burmese government or ASEAN, the regional international group. The UN must act now to ensure that the Rohingya population can be liberated from this ethnic hatred and to ensure that Burma does not collapse.

Campaign group Avaaz has launched a campaign to get citizens of Western nations to pressure their governments to stop Burma from becoming ‘The next Rwanda’. The story of Rwanda is not only one of genocide and racial hatred but also one of an international community failing to fulfil its promise to those at risk of genocide. If the UN and the wider international community does not act now, the word ‘Burma’ might begin to be said in the same dark way we say ‘Rwanda’; as a synonym for the worst depths of humanity.


‘Rights for shares’ flop demonstrates wider crisis of creativity within the government

By Alex Bryan

This week it has come to light that George Osborne’s ‘rights for shares’ scheme has, two months before it is even due to begin, become an embarrassing failure for the government. It has been reported that only 6 companies have enquired about the plan, much lower than expected from a scheme which was deemed important and popular enough to star in the Chancellor’s speech to the Conservative Party conference.

When the policy was announced many, including myself, were sceptical, firstly of the chances of such a move boosting a dormant economy and secondly of the desirability of aiding businesses through the disempowerment and exploitation of their workers. The muted response to the policy shows that these reservations are widespread, and signals another failed attempt in the government’s search for growth.

With hindsight, it seems ludicrous that such a policy could have been given such a high billing, not only because of its limitations as a policy but also due to its rather traditional character. The general theory that restricting the rights of workers will enhance productivity and profits is steeped in history and, for a government (and specifically the leadership of the Conservative Party) which presents an image of modernisation and fresh thinking, rather staid.

The now entrenched divide between Conservative frontbenchers and backbenchers seems to be largely based on David Cameron’s process of ‘detoxification’, which involved the rejection of a number of key traditional conservative mantras. The Cameroons are often derided by those who do not regard them as ‘true’ conservatives, often to the point where backbench rebellions threaten government credibility.

It seems strange then that such an image would be maintained despite the central placement of such policies. However, this is not an issue of a backbench-frontbench divide. Rather, it is demonstrative of a wider crisis of creativity within the government at present. With the exception of a few ministers most departments have tended to continue presenting rehashed versions of old ideas, which have been embraced by Number 10.

The ‘rights for shares’ scheme was not only poorly thought through, it was disappointingly predictable. The specific implementation of the idea might be new, but the idea itself is far from it. This is not to say that all government policies must be entirely original, or that there is not something within political history that governments could learn, but that faced with the particular crises that are at hand, and with a government which trumpets the importance of innovation and entrepreneurialism from the rooftops, one might expect more interesting thought.

Even most of the policies floated in opposition to the government by their own MP’s are lacking in intellectual vim. The ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’ floated by a group of Conservative backbenchers was more a 1913 vintage than a 2013, other than a sole sensible and interesting suggestion (to establish a maximum number of members of the House of Lords).

Sometimes though, backbenchers come up with better ideas. This week Nadhim Zahawi MP echoed Boris Johnson’s previous call for an amnesty of all existing illegal immigrants within the UK, saying that the move would be economically advantageous as well as electorally astute for the Conservatives. Writing for a conservative think tank aiming to increase the popularity of the Conservative Party among ethnic minority voters, Zahawi’s suggestion is clearly far from selfless, but it is still brave and worthy of serious consideration.

Unfortunately, the government distanced itself from the suggestions as quickly as it could. The fact that the government could promote Osborne’s ‘rights for shares’ policy so whole-heartedly and yet dismiss Zahawi’s idea without public discussion demonstrates the wider pattern of unimaginative policy. Before David Cameron came into office, he was aware that this could be a problem, and he tried to solve it by bringing in unorthodox policy guru Steve Hilton. Since Hilton’s departure, the problem has only become more pronounced.

The economic crisis, in both length and character, differs from any we have previously faced. Globalisation, climate change, international terrorism and energy crises have created a peculiar political environment, which will not revert to a fabled status quo. In times of trouble, it is imperative that leaders are creative and imaginative, thinking about problems without genuine openness and ingenuity. Unfortunately, at the moment, it remains to be seen whether our leaders are thinking at all.

I don’t know whether is it was just some Fleet Street thing: Nick Clegg and the danger of morality doorstepping

By John Newton

Nick Clegg has been accused of making a gaffe after appearing to down play the seriousness of domestic violence on his LBC Call Clegg programme. Newspapers reported that the Deputy Prime Minister had described an incident involving Charles Saatchi putting his hands around his wife, Nigella Lawson’s throat as “fleeting”. However, what Clegg said and the response it elicited point to interesting currents at play in the relationship between politicians and the media.

Modern politics is sometimes a depressingly stage managed affair, with entire departments of well qualified and savvy media operators working manically to ensure that in every contact with the press or the public our politicians come across as normal, decent human beings.

This is actually surprisingly difficult, so naturally when the assiduously conceived mask slips and the plausible ‘hard working public servant’ goes off script, the press seize it gratefully and run with it, often with opposing parties providing supporting cover down the wings.

There have been Ken Clarke’s infamous comments questioning the legitimacy of date-rape on BBC Radio 5live, which prompted Labour leader Ed Miliband to call for his resignation, or Gordon Brown’s much vaunted ‘bigot’ remarks in the run-up to the 2010 election.

Both of these things were legitimate sources of news as they provided pertinent and substantial insights into the views of the politicians involved. Ken Clarke was at the time he made his comments on the Victoria Derbyshire programme the Justice Secretary. This clearly provided a disturbing perspective on the way he would act as a Minister.

Similarly, during the 2010 general election campaign, a key issue for the Gordon Brown’s government was a collapse in support amongst traditional working class Labour voters over issues like immigration policy. By accusing Gillian Duffy of being a “bigot” on a microphone which had been mistakenly left on, Brown seemed to show a lack of understanding of the views and fears of one of his party’s core demographics.

In the case of Nick Clegg’s comments however, it seems that while the response was one of unequivocal condemnation, the narrative is much more nuanced.

Clegg’s words were not elegant or inspiring. It can safely be assumed that a more wizened political operator would have quietly stressed they couldn’t comment on an individual case and loudly condemned domestic violence.

The Liberal Democrat leader in fact seemed to do the opposite.  Asked if he would have personally intervened in the particular incident depicted between Saatchi and Lawson, he initially said:

“What a difficult question…I find it so difficult to imagine. So you see a couple…I’m like you, I don’t know what happened. When you see a couple having an argument, most people you know, just assume the couple will just resolve it themselves. If something descends into outright violence then that’s something different. I just don’t know.

“There was this one photograph. I don’t know whether that was just a fleeting thing or…I’m really sorry … I’m at a loss to be able to put myself in that position without knowing.”

Only then adding when asked to comment more generally: “I hope everyone’s instincts would be…to try and protect the weaker person. To try and protect the person who might be hurt.”

This is clearly not a well constructed or rousing condemnation of what is generally perceived as a wide-spread but clandestine crime. Rather reasonably, that is because that is not what Mr Clegg was asked to comment on. The caller asked him specifically about what was shown in the pictures of Lawson and Saatchi and whether that would have prompted him to intervene. Having only seen one of the pictures, Clegg said he didn’t know how he would have responded. As it appeared that Clegg was unaware that Saatchi had accepted a police caution for the incident, it seems he strove not to tread too heavily on possibly libelous ground by making any direct statement a about a case he seemed to know little about.

Within an hour of the programme going out, the Telegraph’s James Kirkup claimed in a blog post that the Deputy Prime Minister should “be ashamed of his comments this morning”. Kirkup notably picked up on the word “fleeting” which seemed to be the focal point for the subsequent criticism of Clegg’s comments. Vey early on this conflated the issue of whether Clegg was talking about the incident itself or positing the difficulties in deciding to intervene in an argument you know little about in a restaurant.

Listening to the broadcast, it is relatively clear the latter is the case. Once this conflation had been introduced however, torrents of condemnation followed.

Conservative MP Sarah Woollastone tweeted “So just don’t ‘call Clegg’ if your partner likes to grab you by the throat to emphasise a point”.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper released a statement attacking Mr Clegg for revealing “how little he understands about violence against women” as “too often violence against women is dismissed as fleeting or unimportant”.

Inevitably Mr Clegg’s office rushed out a statement clarifying that the politician unsurprisingly “completely condemned all forms of domestic violence”.

However, it seemed that Clegg’s reticence on the issue had provided a political open goal.

In an interview in Saturday’s Guardian, Labour leader Ed Miliband went further, bringing the focus back to the pictures themselves and the question of intervention. He said:

“Honestly, if you are passing by something like that happening – our duty is to intervene. If I had been in that situation, passing by in those circumstances, the right thing to do is to go up to somebody involved in that and say ‘What’s going on?’”

This was the immediate precursor to a difficult acknowledgement about the limits of Labour’s spending commitments, were the party to win the next election. The article’s topline remained the comments about the incident in the restaurant.

Using such a serious a complicated issue, like domestic violence, which is so often hidden from view, to make political capital is truly reprehensible. Obviously domestic abuse will not be solved by MPs rushing about restaurants demanding to know “What’s going on?”. The Labour party should know better than to treat the issue so cheaply.

The media tactics at play seem akin to ‘morality doorstepping’. Doorstepping refers to the practice of, typically, waiting outside someone’s home to fire questions at them on a particular topic as they make their way from the front step to the waiting car. It’s a favourite ploy for use on disgraced ministers and celebrities, where getting an actual comment is only slightly preferable to getting footage of a dogged figure refusing to answer a question.

When applied to serious and complex issues of morality and in this case as it has transpired criminality, a lack of comment seems tantamount to an endorsement, with which the press can then run with as a gaffe.

In this case in particular the conflation and lack of substance to the stories trivialise the issue as reporters pore over transcripts looking for a ‘smoking gun’ which could be used against Clegg.

The danger inherent in this method of journalism is that politicians will be presented with a stream of ‘what would you do if’, scenarios to respond to. In the main, politicians would welcome this as, with adequate preparation it gives them the chance to talk about themselves and promote a positive image. What is less desirable however is the onus placed on the personality of the politician rather than the gravity of the issue, giving the process a competitive element as political figures vie to give the ‘right’ answer.

Both before and after hearing Clegg’s comments and despite disagreeing with him on almost every conceivable level on politics and policy, I am pretty sure he doesn’t aim to condone or downplay instances of domestic violence.

By using these comments as a political weapon, conversely, politicians and the press have trivialised and distracted from the issues at hand.

The Citizens’ Advice Bureau and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, have both pointed to Government cuts to welfare meaning that victims of domestic abuse often have fewer options for escaping violent relationships, as women disproportionately lose out from changes to benefits.

By using the pictures of the incident the press has shown how it can highlight issues like domestic abuse, raising awareness and starting much-needed debates. However by turning the issue into a party political point-scoring exercise or a moratorium on Nick Clegg’s media relations skills this vital opportunity is squandered. This does not just constitute lazy journalism, it is actively damaging.


Review: Doc/Fest – Sheffield Documentary Festival 2013

By Helen Swire

This year has seen the 20th anniversary of Sheffield Doc/Fest, one of the top three documentary festivals in the world. Over the past five days, over one hundred films have been showcased across the city, some of which are experiencing their global premiere.

Coming to Doc/Fest for the first time, I was initially overwhelmed by the choice of films, however having negotiated with my viewing partner, we established a timetable allowing us to see at least one documentary each day. Knowing the city was certainly helpful, however all relevant timetabling information and maps are provided on the Doc/Fest website.

Price has hardly been an object. Hailing from London, I am used to paying around £9 or £10 for a film ticket – this week however I have seen six documentaries for £18. For the truly passionate viewers, there is also a five-day pass giving access to all the shows for only £40. Meanwhile, several of the films are also screened for free during the week at an outdoor screen.

Practically it is also good value – many pubs and cafes around the city take advantage of the trade provided by the festival by putting on special offers, for example discounted food with tickets, passes or wristbands.

So, a brief run-down of my documentary diary:

Day One: Not Criminally Responsible (Dir: John Kastner): An enlightening, touching and at times surprisingly humorous view of the question of the mental health aspect of criminality and one man’s quest for freedom, atonement and social rehabilitation through the medication of his schizophrenia.

Day Two: A Man Vanishes (Dir: Shôhei Imamura): On the surface this Japanese documentary seeks to investigate the fate of a man who has disappeared without trace – but leaves the audience questioning the difference between reality and fiction, and even the documentary genre itself.

Day Two: Google and the World Brain (Dir: Ben Lewis): A discussion of Google’s ambitious attempts to scan the world’s books and the ensuing debate surrounding copyright laws and freedom of speech.

Day Three: After Tiller (Dir: Martha Shane, Lana Wilson): The thought-provoking film follows the four remaining third-trimester abortion doctors in America after the fifth, George Tiller, was assassinated by pro-life extremists. After Tiller is a compassionate look at the decisions and struggles of the working – and personal – lives of these doctors, who have lost in Tiller both a colleague and a friend.

Day Four: Project Wild Thing (Dir: David Bond): The audience follows the director’s sweet and humorous journey to ‘market’ nature to families, and thus bring children back outside – all while discussing contemporary family life.

Day Five: Electro Moscow (Dir: Elena Tikhonova, Dominik Spritzendorfer): A Russian-language documentary which reveals the fascinating history behind the electronic arts movement in the Soviet Union, showing the innovative techniques used to overcome the lack of musical technology behind the Iron Curtain.

As a recent and as yet unemployed graduate, the cost of travel from London has been more than worthwhile given the value for money of the festival. Over the past few days I have been moved to laughter and tears, debated with other viewers, changed my opinions and had my eyes opened. I have watched social and moral commentaries on nature and technology, thought-provoking films about mental illness and abortion, and philosophical foreign-language films. Michael Palin, Alan Yentob and Jarvis Cocker have given Q & A sessions. Perhaps more importantly, many directors, both new and established, have been given platforms to give their films a wider exposure and have been given the opportunity to broaden public perspective on issues.

At its most expensive, Doc/Fest is still eminently available to the public – and worth every penny both for the viewing public and for the documentary crews who are putting their work out. This year I have seen six films as a first-timer. Next year I’ll definitely be back for more.

More information is available at


Why it isn’t just Franglais shared between Britain and France

By Joseph Perry

The recent French Defence White Paper signals a further continuation of deepening Anglo-French ties. As budget constraints squeeze defence spending there was concern amongst British officials that French capabilities would be significantly reduced, hindering not only French, but British foreign policy and the ability for France to uphold major aspects of the Lancaster House Defence cooperation treaties of 2010.

However, underlying the immediate damage of the French defence budget being reduced from 1.7% to around 1.5% of France’s national income and some 34,000 military related jobs being cut between now and 2019, the capabilities of France are simply realigning with different priorities. Mainly, a re-emphasis on expeditionary warfare rather than armed forces geared up for long sustained ground war interventions. Thus, maritime and amphibious projection capabilities have largely been protected whilst an increase in Special Forces will plug the gap of rapid reaction troops being cut from 80,000 to 66,000. Coinciding with the restructuring of France’s ability to project meaningful force across the globe will be an increased emphasis upon intelligence, guided-missiles, remote-controlled air systems and further cooperation with the UK, particularly including missiles, drones and maritime and amphibious projection.

The further strengthening of cooperation between the two major players in European defence is welcome. With shrinking defence budgets across the continent, whilst Asian counterparts are increasing theirs, how long can this trend continue before Europe shrinks into geo-political irrelevance? Additionally with the US currently looking impassive – especially regarding any notion of intervention or engagement – in the European periphery, the Anglo-French alliance is next in line to uphold the brunt of security concerns. This goes some way in explaining the importance of both countries’ military structures and arrangements that are in place throughout North Africa and the Gulf – two areas of strategic importance and great security concerns.

Yet with both economies strewn with problems and defence budgets having to make sacrifices, it is increasingly necessary for certain capabilities to be pooled in order to match the similar ambitions of two nuclear armed global players. Contemporary examples of Anglo-French cooperation in this manner include both Libya and Mali where crucially both missions were conducted without major American assistance, much to the credit of the UK and France. Not since the Suez debacle in 1956 have the two powers cooperated so closely when it comes to security.

Nevertheless this is where this necessary alliance draws criticism. Mutual interests for the moment may be compatible, but what if they were to diverge over an event concerning the Falklands? Would France respond to a crisis concerning a relic of a past rival empire? Also, how would France react to the UK leaving the EU? This is not beyond the realms of possibility after recent events.  Where would NATO and Britain’s ‘special relationship’ fit into the equation?

There continues to be elements of doubt in an everlasting friendship due to the occasional trivial jibes at one another. Cameron’s remark regarding French proposals of increasing the top rate of tax to 75% where he said he would ‘role the red carpet out for French business’  is just one example of either side upsetting the other.

France is also suspicious of the UK’s transatlantic ties and the enduring emphasis of the importance of NATO to British foreign policy. On the other hand the UK ponders over whether France still desires European grandeur and dominance over the continuing development of a European security framework separate to NATO.

Nonetheless, these reservations are irrelevant, or at least forgettable, if either power wishes its capabilities to match ambitions and global responsibility. William Hague recently remarked that the world is less safe than three years ago when the Coalition was formed. Consequently it would appear that the double entente is currently indispensable, regardless of politics, especially for the UK who is now reliant upon the French for an aircraft carrier should it need one for the years to come. Calculatedly what needs to happen is for both London and Paris to gradually fuse strategic thinking together whilst aligning militarily and logistically where possible. Therefore, then reducing the risk of strategic and military mishaps whilst responding to a potential crisis in an operative, co-ordinated and commanding fashion.

The fact that Peter Ricketts (British ambassador in Paris) sat on the Defence commission, something unprecedented, suggests that it is now accepted on either side of the Channel that one of the past great rivalries of Europe is now a pivotal (unbreakable) alliance for its security, and maintaining the global presence of the UK and France. Despite both of their military’s being cut to the bare minimum their capabilities seem just about intact, though further cuts could result in the shrinking of capabilities and global power on par with how quickly their empires receded.  It increasingly seems the case that whatever the future holds for the UK and France, they will either tackle it together, or decline together.

The Ocampo six must face international justice

By Alex Bryan

On February 27 2008, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga signed an agreement which created a new power-sharing arrangement in Kenya, establishing a coalition government between the parties the two men led. This brought an end to almost three months of violence which had ripped the country apart, leaving over 1,000 dead and 300,000 displaced. The violence had mainly run on party lines, and as these parties themselves had built constituencies based on ethnicity, the violence had a haunting ethnic dimension which for many summoned reminders of the violence which engulfed Kenya’s neighbour Sudan just years earlier.

Just under two years after the beginning of the conflict, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo announced that he wished to summon six Kenyans to the court to investigate them on counts of crimes against humanity. Of those six, one was the former police chief, one was a radio executive and four, including President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, had served in the Kenyan government.

Now it seems that the African Union, in the 50th year since its inception, is requesting the transfer of the ‘Ocampo six’ from the ICC to the Kenyan justice system. The AU has claimed in the past that the ICC unfairly targets African leaders, and appears to be attempting to make some political gains by making a stand in this instance. The resolution makes no legal difference to the ICC’s case, but is a clear attempt by African states to stand against what is perceived to be an international justice system which overwhelmingly pursues Africans whilst allowing international human rights abusers from across the rest of the world to live freely.

It is true that since its inception in 2002 all the ICC’s cases so far are from African countries, with all eight current investigations being held focussed on African countries. The first arrest warrant released by the court was for the infamous Ugandan Joseph Kony. No white person has ever been prosecuted by the ICC.

However, the reach of the international justice system at large has certainly not ignored the most serious international crimes committed outside of Africa. There has been an international tribunal set up investigating the Bosnian war, including the ongoing trial of Ratko Mladic, and an extraordinary chamber set up to investigate the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. African nations have, on the whole, tended to experience more cases of crimes which fall under the ICC remit than other continents, and hence it is understandable that the gaze of the ICC is centrally focussed there.

It is also the case that the crimes committed in Kenya fall squarely within the ICC remit. The ICC should not be persuaded from investigating cases which appear to fall within its remit and which, were it not for the court, would probably not have been pursued had the court not had the initiative to do so due to the influence and standing of those involved. The problem is not that the ICC is prosecuting too many people committing crimes in Africa, but that they need to be more active in powerful and wealthy nations.

As a concept, international justice is one which had a number of difficulties which sovereign nations have found it hard to overcome. While the UN was founded in 1945 and the Nuremburg trials ending in 1946, it was only in 2002 that it was possible for the ICC to come into being. But the experiences of the past 60 years, and particularly those of the past 25, such as the Bosnian war, the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan, have demonstrated the need for humanity as a whole to attempt to collectively stand against those who commit certain acts.

The African Union might be right that the ICC is pursuing a disproportionate number of cases from Africa, but the merits or demerits of the ICC’s case against the Ocampo six has nothing to do with that. A significant proportion of the crimes committed which fall under the ICC remit are committed in Africa, and Africa needs the ICC to develop into a stronger, more consistent arbiter of international justice in order to protect its people. Discrediting the court, shackling it, displaying open hostility to it does not help; rather than producing a fairer and more consistent imposition of justice worldwide, it erodes the credibility to an organisation which is at least serving some justice.

No to referenda

By Alex Bryan

First the Conservatives, then Labour, now finally, it seems, the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg’s statement in PMQ’s on Wednesday that it is a matter of ‘when not if’ a referendum is held on Britain’s membership of the European Union signals the beginning of a three-party consensus that a referendum on Europe is necessary. Considering the age-old Europhilic tendencies of the party, this demonstrates how much support and influence UKIP now wield.

As well as the rise of UKIP, it also signals the rise of something else which the Lib Dems have been altogether more keen on; referenda. Since the ascension of New Labour in 1997, Britain has changed from being a country which had only had one referendum in its entire history to being one in which referenda are becoming an almost common phenomena. Though we have only had one national referendum since 1997 (on the Alternative Vote), the calls for a referendum on the EU and Scottish independence show that they are becoming a part of the national political fabric.

The attractions of calling for a referendum are, from the politicians perspective, clear. ‘Giving the people a vote’ will never be seen as an unpopular stance, and will almost certainly be lauded as ‘democratic’, whilst simultaneously casting anyone who dares to disagree as ‘undemocratic’ or elitist. This should be a worry for those concerned with the health of British politics. The fact that referenda are now seen as a plausible possibility on controversial issues means that politicians can manipulate political opinion in order to suit their political agenda hugely.

Take Europe for example; it is no coincidence that it is the Conservatives and UKIP who are most vocal in their support for a referendum, as it is they who have public opinion on their side. As Labour found out with the ill-fated North Yorkshire devolution referendums in 2004, a referendum lost is an embarrassment. Therefore politicians will only pressure for a referendum on an issue they know that they are winning on.

This is not a good thing. For one thing, issues such as EU membership are hugely complex and shadowed by conjecture and falsehoods. They are immensely important for the future of our nation. They are, essentially, exactly the kind of issues which we elect with politicians to deal with. We devolve some of our democratic powers to parliament and the government in the hope that they, as qualified, full-time politicians, will be able to conduct hearings and make policy on important issues better than we would.

Again, take the EU. This is a subject as controversial as it is possible to be. Proponents of referendums say that, come election day, the public education programme and campaigning preceding it will ensure that the public is informed enough to cast a ballot. But when it comes to the EU, very few people know the figures. Nigel Farage might bang on about membership fees but in reality the economic benefits or costs of EU membership are impossible to calculate. By the time election day comes round, the campaigning will simply have affirmed existing prejudices. On an issue as complex as EU membership, most people will not have the time or the information to do any research into the issue, and will cast their vote based on the statistics and opinions they read in the newspapers, the vast majority of which are anti-EU. It is not elitist to say that in the modern world, where democracy is seen as the state getting out of your way rather than direct participation in the political system, it is not elitist to say this: it is simply realistic.

More important than any individual bad decision however are the long-term implications of referendums on the public’s views on politicians. If politicians begin regularly abdicating the biggest decisions, then it will no longer be seen as important whether they can handle the big decisions, as they will be making fewer of them. A public which already views politicians with contempt will begin to see them as dispensable.

There is a case to be made for the claim that the public does not have enough say on governance, that one vote every five years is nowhere near sufficient. But a functioning democratic system must be constitutionally consistent. If the appetite for referendums is the appetite for increased public involvement, then there are other more effective avenues which lead to that. To attempt to invoke ‘the will of the people’ on an ad hoc basis is dangerous, and has little to do with what the public actually wants. It’s not about public involvement. It is a political power play, designed to render the opponent impotent, and it is a device of which we should be increasingly wary.   L