The United Kingdom is – or, at least, is supposed to be – a representative democracy. That is, we don’t resort to referendums in the way that, say, the Swiss do. The idea is that we vote for MPs, and they represent us. In principle, we elect people who broadly represent the mood of their constituents, and then when new issues arise, we trust them to exercise their judgement on our behalf.
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, and as a young adult in the 1980s, I lived through an era when – whether or not one was happy with the outcome of general elections – representative democracy seemed to be functioning as it should. The Conservative and Labour Parties stood for different views of society (very different, when Margaret Thatcher was the Conservative Party leader and Michael Foot was the Labour Party leader), and for those who felt that the main parties offered options that were too far to the right or to the left, there was a meaningful alternative available – not just the Liberal Party, but also the SDP which, with the Gang of Four at the helm, seemed to offer a very real option to some, myself included. In those days, the Labour Party even opposed UK membership of what was then still the EEC.
Resort wasn’t really had to referendums. We did have a referendum (the first UK-wide one) in 1975 about the UK’s membership of the EEC, which it had recently joined. The UK had joined the EEC thanks to Ted Heath’s Conservative government which, interestingly, made no great play of applying for EEC membership in its manifesto before the 1970 general electioni. Perhaps the UK’s membership of the EEC has always been the issue that conflicts with the concept of representative democracy.
Over the years, referendums seemed to be seen by politicians as a means by which they could solve their own political difficulties. The 1975 referendum over continuing EEC membership was arguably held only because Harold Wilson saw it as a means of resolving the huge divisions in the Labour Party on that subject at the time. To date, the UK has seen a grand total of eleven referendums heldii. Mostly they have been about devolution or EEC/EU membership, though in 1973 a local referendum was held on the subject of whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or join the Republic of Ireland, and in 2011, as part of the coalition deal between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, a referendum was held on whether to change the voting system for Parliament from first-past-the-post to alternative vote.
Whatever one’s views on the UK membership of the EU and the rights and wrongs of Brexit, I think it is fair to say that this is the first issue where it became apparent that the electorate’s representatives in Parliament were substantially out of sympathy with, and unrepresentative of, the views of a substantial proportion of the electorate (arguably, of 52% of them, as things turned out).
Following that referendum held on 23rd June 2016 , it quickly became apparent that a substantial proportion of MPs (and also of members of the House of Lords – that unrepresentative and undemocratic part of the UK constitution) disagreed with the result of the vote. And although many said they would “respect” the result of the vote, it soon became clear that they didn’t. Relentless campaigning took place for a second vote, for a “people’s vote” (I thought that’s what the referendum had been) and obstacle after obstacle was placed in the way of the Prime Minister – who was by then Theresa May, following David Cameron’s departure on the failure of his tactic to lance the Brexit boil in his party.
Elections to the European Parliament took place, which demonstrated that whatever the precise split in the UK electorate (whether narrowly in favour of continuing EU membership or narrowly in favour of Brexit) they were not, as Parliamentarians were, overwhelmingly in view of remaining in the EU. Still the deadlock in Parliament continued. It couldn’t readily be broken due to the provisions of an Act of Parliament pushed through by the Lib Dem/Conservative coalition, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011iii. It required a majority among MPs representing more than two thirds of all seats (including vacant seats) in the House of Commons. That was for a long time too high a hurdle, as the anti-Brexit opposition parties and the anti-Brexit MPs in the Conservative Party refused to vote for an early general election that they must have known would have resulted in many of them losing their seats and the Brexit they opposed becoming a reality. Eventually, when the stalemate was crippling the country, even the recalcitrant MPs in Parliament gave in, the necessary majority under the Act of 2011 was obtained, and a general election took place in December 2019. That resulted in Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister, many anti-Brexit MPs losing their seats, just as they must have feared, and Brexit happening. In the end, it was a belated vindication of representative democracy (although many people are understandably unhappy with the outcome).
The problem is that many in the establishment, who don’t share the views of much of the electorate, seem to have learned a lesson to the effect that the electorate must never again be allowed to thwart the views and wishes of the great and the good who believe that they know what’s best for us.
As everyone knows by now, the current Conservative government under the Premiership of Boris Johnson, seeks to accelerate the “net zero” plans unilaterally decided on by his predecessor, Theresa May. May’s plans (to go “net zero” by 2050) were pushed through by statutory instrument (the The Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019iv) , thus ensuring minimal Parliamentary scrutiny. And in Scotland, the aim is to achieve “net zero” by 2045 – the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019v.
In the context of representative democracy, the whole climate change and “net zero” consensus causes the same sort of problems as did the Parliamentary consensus opposed to Brexit. Basically, the consensus means that the public is denied a choice, denied a voice, denied any say at all. The public is simply told what is going to happen, whether they like it or not, because the elites think – or claim to think – that its in the public interest, and after the Brexit referendum they are pretty sure that the public can’t be trusted to choose for the best.
And so, instead, they try to dress it all up in the language of democracy, a democracy that in reality is denied. Rather than allowing us to vote for alternatives to the Climate Change Act and to the net zero plans, they set up a charade which they called the Climate Assembly UKvi, which they also call the citizens’ assembly (which sounds so very democratic, but isn’t). The grand total of 106 people were brought together to suffer interminable lectures on subjects pre-selected by the authorities (after all, they couldn’t be trusted to select the subjects for discussion themselves); and the people lecturing them were also self-selecting, and guaranteed to lead them in the direction the authorities wanted them to take.
And then, at the end of this perversion of democracy, they have the nerve to claimvii:
The work of Climate Assembly UK is designed to strengthen and support the UK’s parliamentary democracy by ensuring politicians and policy makers have the best possible evidence available to them about public preferences on reaching the net zero target.
Rather than put up with all this, is there any political party who will offer the electorate a meaningful choice? The short answer is “no”, other than for some fringe parties with minimal support. A quick survey of the manifestos from the 2019 election makes that clear enough. For instance, the Conservative Party Manifestoviii (page 55):
But today, the climate emergency means that the challenges we face stretch far beyond our borders. Thanks to the efforts of successive Governments, the UK has cut carbon emissions by more than any similar developed country. We are now the world’s leader in offshore wind – a fantastic success story of Government and the private sector working hand in hand to cut costs and deliver ever more electricity at plummeting costs [sic]…
…Yet we recognise that there is far more that needs to be done. We will lead the global fight against climate change by delivering on our world-leading target of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as advised by the independent Committee on Climate Change. We have doubled International Climate Finance. And we will use our position hosting the UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow in 2020 [sic] to ask our global partners to match our ambition.
And much more in similar vein. What of the Labour Party? Well, according to its 2019 manifestoix:
The climate crisis ties us all into a common fate. This election is our best hope to protect future generations from an uninhabitable planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said we need to cut global emissions in half by 2030 to have a chance of keeping global heating within safe limits – that means acting now, and acting decisively. The Tories wasted a decade serving the interests of big polluters. Labour will use the crucial next decade to act. The Tories slashed support for renewable energy while pushing through dangerous fracking [sic].
Now Britain is decades off course on vital emissions targets. That’s why Labour will kick-start a Green Industrial Revolution that will create one million jobs in the UK to transform our industry, energy, transport, agriculture and our buildings, while restoring nature. Our Green New Deal aims to achieve the substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030 in a way that is evidence-based, just and that delivers an economy that serves the interests of the many, not the few.
And much more in similar vein (a word search for “green” produced 37 hits, while a word search for “climate” produced 60, of which six included references to “climate crisis”). So far, so predictable. What of the Liberal Democrats? I’ll be brief on this, as there would be just too much to share here. Suffice it to say that the Liberal Democrat manifesto for 2019x has as its leading section:
Tackle the climate emergency by generating 80% of our electricity from renewables by 2030 and insulating all low-income homes by 2025.
Ironically, given their desire to blight our green and pleasant lands with thousands of acres of wind turbines, their manifesto has a section called Saving Nature and the Countryside in which they claim they will “protect the natural environment and reverse biodiversity loss with a Nature Act”. However, given substantial sections with headings like “Climate action now” and “Renewable energy,” their claim to be concerned about nature and the countryside is one I take with a pinch of salt, given the damage to peat, wildlife and biodiversity that would be caused by all the solar panels and wind turbines they would like to see built.
Well, what if I live in Scotland or Wales? Surely the nationalist parties will give me an alternative to the consensus? Er, no – not to that consensus. The Scottish National Party (SNP) manifesto for 2019xi says this in brief (there’s a more detailed version beyond the summary):
The climate emergency – Scotland has the world’s most ambitious emissions reductions targets in law, but we can only end our contribution to climate change if the UK Government plays its part and meets its targets. SNP MPs will demand the UK matches Scotland’s ambition, meets its Paris Climate Agreement responsibilities and sticks to future EU emission standards – regardless of our position within the EU. We will propose a Green Energy Deal that will ensure green energy schemes get the long-term certainty needed to support investment and that a UK Government plays its part in delivering a Green New Deal for Scotland.
And, as has been widely reported in the mediaxii this week:
A consultation on the Scottish Government’s plans to more than double Scotland’s onshore wind capacity by 2030 has been launched ahead of COP26 in Glasgow.
The proposals were first outlined in the co-operation agreement between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party, and have now been set out in a draft Onshore Wind Policy Statement.
The plans would see an additional 8-12 gigawatts (GW) of installed onshore wind capacity deployed by 2030, potentially more than double the 8.4 GW installed at present.
Scotland is already home to more than half the UK’s total onshore capacity of 14.1 GW.
Enough said. What of Plaid Cymru? Their 2019 manifestoxiii says this (and much else in similar vein besides):
We understand that climate change, together with the global collapse of biodiversity, is the defining challenge of our time. The climate crisis, destruction of nature and overuse of natural resources threaten the foundations of humanity’s well-being. With declining biodiversity, polluted air and accelerating climate crisis, the time to act is now. Wales has the natural resources to become a world leader in renewable technology and address the biggest global challenge of our time. If we are serious about tackling climate change, we need to start investing in the green economy and building the workforce we need to make it a success by investing in our people. That is why Plaid Cymru will implement a Green Jobs Revolution which will ensure that Wales makes the transition to becoming 100% self-sufficient in renewable energy by 2030. Our Renewables Revolution will create tens of thousands of highly skilled jobs in Wales over the next ten years [sic].
And what of the Social Democratic Party, the rump that remains from the heady days of the 1980s? Well, at least they’re not obsessed, but even they sayxiv this:
We believe the UK must lead by example in being at the forefront of global action to combat climate change…
I suppose the most that can be said is that they seem to be lukewarm on the topic, but even they feel they have to comply with the demands of the political consensus.
I haven’t mentioned Northern Ireland – after all, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, they’re currently bickering over which of two Climate Change Bills to enact. As for the Green Party, well, let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, you end up with the Green Party in power by default.
Yes, I suppose there is always UKIP, the Reform Party etc., but realistically, they are never going to form a government or even hold the balance of power. In addition, many people who might like their policies on net zero and climate change might not wish to vote for them because of a dislike of their other policies. In other words, effectively, the sceptical mass of the UK public has been disenfranchised by an elite consensus.
And so we travel full circle. The questions of climate change and the whole net zero agenda are undoubtedly of massive importance. Whether you believe we’re all doomed unless we commit to “net zero” and massive changes to our lifestyles; or whether you believe that going “net zero” is futile in view of the failures of many of the biggest emitters to join the party, and thus you take the view that the “net zero” programme is an elite folly, dangerously expensive and damaging to lifestyles, wealth, happiness and success; whatever your view, there can be no doubting the critical importance of what we do in these areas. Whichever side of the debate you are on, the policy response will undoubtedly impinge hugely on all our lives.
And yet we are given no choice. I have never been a believer in referendums as an appropriate way to answer difficult political questions in the UK. I believe the Brexit referendum was a mistake. I believe that MPs are paid to represent us. And yet, as the Proclaimers once askedxv (in a rather different context), “What do you do when Democracy fails you?...What do you do When Democracy’s all through What do you do When minority means you? ”. Except that I suspect that on this subject people who think as we do are not a minority – and of course that is exactly what those in power fear.
Maybe – just maybe – then, we should have a referendum on this fundamental question. I’m undecided, and I leave you to draw you own conclusions. However, if you think there should be a referendum, then I will close by drawing your attention to the fact that there is a petitionxvi on Parliament’s website calling for signatures, and at the time of writing it has around 3,000. The lack of support is no doubt down to the fact that it is receiving precious little attention from a media who are about as keen on a referendum on net zero as they were on Brexit.
“If we can negotiate the right terms, we believe that it would be in the long-term interest of the British people for Britain to join the European Economic Community, and that it would make a major contribution to both the prosperity and the security of our country. The opportunities are immense. Economic growth and a higher standard of living would result from having a larger market.
But we must also recognise the obstacles. There would be short-term disadvantages in Britain going into the European Economic Community which must be weighed against the long-term benefits. Obviously there is a price we would not be prepared to pay. Only when we negotiate will it be possible to determine whether the balance is a fair one, and in the interests of Britain.
Our sole commitment is to negotiate; no more, no less. [My emphasis]. As the negotiations proceed we will report regularly through Parliament to the country.
A Conservative Government would not be prepared to recommend to Parliament, nor would Members of Parliament approve, a settlement which was unequal or unfair. In making this judgement, Ministers and Members will listen to the views of their constituents and have in mind, as is natural and legitimate, primarily the effect of entry upon the standard of living of the individual citizens whom they represent.”
xv “What do you do” from the album “Sunshine on Leith”.