The NO campaign and its counsel of despair?

On Lisbon, Ciaran takes issue with John Maguire’s passionate espousal of ‘popular sovereignty’. In the course of his argument Maguire asserts that “a well-functioning polity depends on trust, to be earned by representatives from citizens, and not vice versa.” Well, yes. But then surely that’s precisely what the electorate do every time there’s a general election? Ciaran:

I don’t see how it’s ‘perverse’ to say that some decisions are better left to the people we hire to make them. Sneering at that idea undermines the whole notion of representative democracy. We hire politicians to represent and it’s a worrying sign that we then resent them doing that when they have the time (and at least some have the experience) to figure out what’s in the national interest and what’s not.

If we don’t like that, we at least have to recognise that, while questions that can be synopsised as ‘do you want divorce?’ are worth asking, the message of the poll seems to be that several hundred pages revising and updating half a century’s treaties is not amenable to asking a yes-no opinion of people who are not trained treaty-readers. It’s not elitism to say that people didn’t understand what they were being asked: it’s what over 40% of them told the pollsters (and that’s not counting the 4% who thought we were voting on losing a commissioner etc).

He goes on to take issue with my own contention over at Brassneck that the NO campaign got people to look more closely at the document:

The no campaign was obviously successful but in Sinn Féin’s case some of their and-a-pony wishlist reveals that they either don’t understand the treaty themselves or don’t care what’s in it. Libertas barely stayed this side of disingenuous (not that the government was much better). Their success was not in ‘prompting people to look more closely at the document’ but in encouraging people to despair of the whole thing. [emphasis added]

If Bruno Waterfield (via Gavin) is right, then we’re off for another ‘spin’ next Spring.

There is no alternative for the government now, but to engage directly with the electorate and make a case. And above all engage with the doubts and the doubters. The EU’s haughty view that some how British owned Irish titles and an unregulated blogosphere (though I suspect they have Politics.ie in mind rather than us rag tag army disparate of bloggers) is not only wrong headed, it misses the point by an Irish country mile.

Years ago, as part of a research project of the Wellcome Trust I interviewed a Vice President of a major oil corporation o how they deal with complex technological and environmental issues in an often febrile and mistrusting public domain. His answer was that that they had more often got it wrong than right. And, he observed that the world has changed from a ‘tell me’ to a ‘show me’ paradigm. There is no alternative to robust public engagement.

As Quintin Oliver pointed out the morning after last June’s debacle, the government will need to be well ahead on numbers before the campaign begins, because No campaigns always eat away at public confidence no matter what the question. So expect the work to begin long before any referendum is announced. Ciaran reckons that the various questions should be disaggregated:

The only way I can see us doing this by referendum properly is to take each stage of a treaty like Lisbon and ask an individual question for each one, or at least for each one that contravenes Crotty (as in, involves a transfer of sovereignty). Imagine: a couple of hundred referendums in one day. Or we could isolate the sovereignty transfer stuff, argue about that and vote on it clause by clause. The polity as committee system. Trés democratic!

But it won’t be easy from the NO campaign’s point of view either. Several of their campaign talking points will not feature this time, because they’re either irrelevant to the question, or may turn out in a competitive campaign not be quite what voters thought they were. And they will have lost the element of surprise. Some are resorting, even now, to the power of prayer.

The real question that arises for me is not which way will Lisbon II go, but what can be done about the poverty of public debate in the Republic, particularly beyond the spods inside the Leinster House bubble.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty