Bernard Ingham: Given the Brexit mess, referenda, I trust, are like Monty Python’s parrot: deceased.

David Cameron is to blame for the current political crisis, says Sir Bernard Ingham who calls for referenda to be abolished.
David Cameron is to blame for the current political crisis, says Sir Bernard Ingham who calls for referenda to be abolished.
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HOW on earth did we get ourselves into this mess? The short answer is we didn’t. David Cameron and his Old Etonians did. He asked the nation in a referendum whether we wanted to stay in the EU or leave it to try to unify his party.

We said “Out” by a convincing margin, yet I do not recall any earlier insistent public clamour to get out.

Ask a silly question – as Brussels and Remainers no doubt see it – and you get a silly answer.

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Certainly Cameron’s vote must be one of the most spectacular failures of policy in the annals of the Mother of Parliaments.

Far from uniting his own party, it has rendered British politics down to what might reasonably be called anarchy. In the 17th century, Roundheads and Cavaliers waged civil war
for less. Thank goodness we live in marginally more civilised times.

Only the politicians – and their obsessively demonstrative supporters in Westminster and on the internet – are at war, with volley after volley of words and abuse being exchanged.

Against this background, you could argue that we have seen the last of referenda for a very long time. Far from it. The Remainers insistently demand another one, playing Brussels’ familiar game of telling member-states to vote until they get the right answer.

It worked with the Danes and the Irish. But it will not work with the Brits even if our wayward politicians take complete leave of their senses – as some already have done.

I think we can safely say that Margaret Thatcher would never have held a referendum. She regarded them as the tool of dictators. That is not say that she would now be a Remainer since she had comprehensively fallen out with the EC by 1988 and the EU has deteriorated since.

But that is by the way. We are in turmoil. The nation – including its industry and commerce – and the two main political parties are split asunder on Brexit and a majority in the House of Commons, and possibly the Lords, have set themselves against the people’s verdict.

The empty-noddled Scots are clamouring to get out of the benign clutches of the English in favour of subjecting themselves to the dictatorship of Brussels. Northern Ireland is playing it for kicks – and quids – rather like Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who, as I say, is owt for tuppence if it gets him into No 10.

The big question behind all this is whether we should have done once and for all with referenda in spite of their being held by some as the acme of democratic perfection.

After all, the Swiss never seem to do anything without referenda and whatever they decide never seems to get in the way of their prosperity.

I am clear in my own mind they should be ditched as a political and constitutional tool. It is true that years ago when devolution was all the rage we had regional referenda and said “No”.

Given the state of local government, there is no reason to suppose that regional government would perform any better. In any case, local decisions are best taken as close to the people as possible. There was nothing wrong with the existing system when Ted Heath rolled urban and rural councils into larger boroughs in 1973-74.

The case for referenda is that the nation makes known its will. But that is not a blind bit of use if our politicians disagree with it and try – as they are doing – to overturn their declared wish.

Moreover, referenda cannot be conducted in a vacuum. Major issues must be decided by the government of the day, primarily on the basis of its manifesto. It must then be held to account in the Commons by the Opposition and ultimately by the electorate.

We must resolve once and for all that referenda are consigned to the dustbin of history. Otherwise, we give politicians a chance to pass the buck and dictators a chance to manipulate the populace.

What we need is a better class of politician. If we had had that these last 28 years, either the EU would be a different place – with none of its federalist nonsense – or we would be well out of it.

I am simply flabbergasted that any discerning politician should want to be in an institution that undermines and overlords both themselves and their Parliament and is undemocratic, bureaucratic, protectionist, palsied in its own defence, expensive and corrupt in the bargain.

Referenda, I trust, are like Monty Python’s parrot: deceased.