The tragedy of the referendum is that the electorate have a habit of answering the wrong question. The tragedy of the second Lisbon campaign is that neither side is asking the right question (is the Lisbon Treaty an acceptable modification to the way the EU is run?), instead trying to outdo each other in who can more effectively scare the electorate into voting the “right” way. Cóir’s outrageous “they’ll steal your babies” accusation is merely the most shameful example in a shameful campaign. The “yes” argument meanwhile seems to be equal parts irrelevant (“I’m better off in Europe”) and overblown (“FDI will dry up”).
Compared to past EU treaties (stand up, Maastricht) and past constitutional amendments (divorce) the Lisbon Treaty is small change. The issues it raises are mostly technical. Both “yes” and “no” campaigns have struggled to find anything in the text itself to hang a decent argument on. I gave a lift to a university-student friend the other day who admitted she hadn’t a clue what it was all about. At a public meeting earlier in the week, local politicians struggled (wo)manfully to keep the debate on track – speakers from the floor were more interested in jobs and aid. The general public seems more exercised by the potential of giving Cowen a good thrashing than the Treaty itself.
It is not just in Ireland that referendum campaigns can go astray. Polly Toynbee argued in the Guardian this week that it was time for a referendum on PR for Westminster. Her commenters were quick to point out that with Labour’s standing at a historic low, only opponents of PR should be hoping for such a referendum in the near future.
Because referendums, like local elections, are only ever about kicking the government in the nuts. All else is sophistry.