David Cameron has spent the entire week on the back foot. He has badly mishandled the crisis over his tax affairs and now the Conservative Party threatens to erupt into total civil war over his plans to use £9.3 million in taxpayer’s money to send a pro-EU leaflet to every home in the UK. In the run up to June 23rd the last thing David Cameron needs is for the referendum to look like an establishment stitch up, but then if it looks like a stitch up, and smells like a stitch up…
The most damning indictment came from the Electoral Commission, which stated: “We don’t think the government should have done it, but it’s not illegal” and warned that such use of public money could give an “unfair advantage”. These words are politically explosive.
It has all gone downhill since the PM honourably accepted a new referendum question. Back then The Telegraph said “he must do more” to ensure a “free and fair” referendum. Since then he has ignored the recommendations of the Electoral Commission in order to rush the referendum rather than separate the designation of campaigns from the referendum period, which would have meant a ten month gap between the vote and the legislation, rather than four.
This is an area in which we are constitutionally immature, but the government has ignored all of the proposed principles on the conduct of referendums that we have developed over the years. The 1996 findings of the independent Commission on the Conduct of Referendums that “publication and management of information relevant to a referendum should be exercised outside of Government” have been ignored. The recommendations in a 1998 report of the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life concerning the conduct of referendums, which was instructed to consider better regulation of referendums after the evident lack of balance in the Welsh Assembly Referendum, said:
“We believe it is perfectly appropriate for the government of the day to state its views and for members of the Government to campaign vigorously during referendum campaigns, just as they do during general election campaigns. But we also believe that, just as in general election campaigns, neither taxpayers’ money nor the permanent government machine – civil servants, official cars, the Government Information Service, and so forth – should be used to promote the interests of the Government side of the argument. In other words, referendum campaigns should be treated for these purposes in every way as though they were general election campaigns.”
The Committee went on to say:
We believe that it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for the government of the day to offer purely objective and factual information in the course of a referendum campaign, especially when, as will usually be the case, itself it is a party to the campaign. We believe governments should not participate in referendum campaigns in this manner, just as it would be thought to be wholly inappropriate during a general election campaign for the government to print and distribute, at the taxpayers’ expense, literature setting out government policy.
The Committee went on to table a specific recommendation, which read:
The government of the day in future referendums should, as a government, remain neutral and should not distribute at public expense literature, even purportedly ‘factual’ literature, setting out or otherwise promoting its case.
David Cameron has defended the £9 million leaflet campaign, insisting that the government is “not neutral” and the cost was “money well spent”. Far be it from me to question the wisdom of what the government spends my money on, but the prime minister misses the point.
The Government’s conduct also violates the Code of Good Practice on Referendums adopted by the Council for Democratic Elections and the European Commission for Democracy through Law or “Venice Commission” in 2006. The “Venice Commission”, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, was created in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall to advise in constitutional matters and improve the functionality of democratic institutions. It was primarily aimed at former Soviet satellites, though sadly it is now clear that British democracy is in a state of disrepair and our own government could do with its guidance.
The Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice concedes it is legitimate for the government to convey its viewpoint in the debate, but states that they must not “abuse their position”, insisting that; “the use of public funds for campaigning purposes must be prohibited in order to guarantee equality of opportunity and the freedom of voters to form an opinion.”
The Code also calls for equality between the proposal’s supporters and opponents in “public subsidies and other forms of backing”. It makes clear that “public authorities at every level (national, regional or local), must not engage in excessive, one-sided campaigning, but show neutrality”. This is qualified with an acceptance that this does not mean they will not take a stand, but must provide a “certain amount of necessary information” to help voters arrive at an informed opinion. The “best solution”, the Code states, is for the authorities to issue an “exploratory report” that details both viewpoints “in a balanced way”.
The justification for the use of taxpayer’s money is that internal polls have suggested that 85% of people wanted the government to provide more information so they could make an informed decision. The leaflets are not however balanced information designed to dispassionately inform, but are part of a political campaign. It simply isn’t objective information, it’s spin. There is no serious balanced consideration, just worst case scenario, doomsday peddling.
The government is overreaching, using all of its resources to get the result it wants. We are being herded.
This is not a free and fair referendum, this is not a healthy democracy in action and we are not a country in the midst of an informative and balanced national debate. Post-referendum complaints of illegitimacy and stitch ups are now inevitable and the integrity of the Prime Minister and his Government are in question.
Cameron’s former Professor of Government at Oxford, Vernon Bogdanor, said that:
“One purpose of a referendum is to secure legitimacy for decisions where Parliament alone can not secure that legitimacy. For that legitimacy to be secured, the losers have to feel that the fight was fairly conducted”
I’m fighting to win but if the country votes to remain when faced with the full weight of the government machine don’t expect me stop fighting.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty