Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Referendum, Comrades

It's an often overlooked aspect among the far more interesting turmoil of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in March 1991, the population of that miserable and desperate empire went to the polls to hold a referendum on the future of the bloc. It was, in Soviet terms a fair and open poll, opposition was allowed and indeed managed to win 22% of the vote who disagreed with the proposition that it was necessary to preserve the Soviet Union in some form.

Of course as we do all know, by the end of that year the voters hopes were dashed and the crumbling became an avalanche from Vladivostok to the Baltic, as the communist regimes fell. Why did this happen, if as the poll suggests and overwhelming 77% of the Soviet population wished to preserve the union? And what, if anything, does this tell us about our own referendum on EU membership?

Firstly, a quarter of a century on, it's important to put this in some historical context. Throughout the 1980s the command and control economies of Soviet Union and her allies had struggled. The long and protracted war in Afghanistan had drained resources and sapped morale. The constant shortages of just about everything made a stark contrast with the west, then enjoying an economic renaissance. The Berlin wall, the vast stubborn concrete symbol of Soviet oppression, had fallen 2 years earlier and revolutions across the other communist nations of Eastern Europe had left the USSR an isolated and anachronistic place. The appetite for reform was vast, and President Gorbachev, despite being very much a Soviet man, was also a moderniser.

While the west viewed the transformation of the Eastern Bloc as a liberation many in the east saw only the chaos and danger. Mass unemployment, the fire sale of state industries and the hasty liberalisation of markets previously controlled by an all-powerful state. And this in small countries such as Estonia and Czechoslovakia. What would happen if the mighty Soviet Union collapsed and splintered into it's constituent republics was a question on the lips of many people far beyond the borders of the Soviet Union.

It was in this environment that the Gorbachev administration made the monumental decision to consult the people, but not quite in the open-ended way that, for example, Swiss voters are routinely consulted on local policy. Instead, the Politburo, knowing full well what answer it wanted to get from the referendum framed the question thus:

"Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?"

A rather abstract and loaded question. Equal sovereign states, guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of each individual, or chaos and mayhem.

Who in that environment, fed on a diet of Soviet propaganda and fearful of the anarchic collapse of their society, could really vote against such a proposition? Although a sizable minority did, the result was a resounding 77% in favour of maintaining the Soviet Union in some form. Even as the Soviet Union, in which nearly every voter had lived their entire lives by 1991 fell to pieces and the discredited leadership grappled with economic collapse, local breakaway republics and a restless population, people voted Yes. They voted for unity, for continuity and against a great leap into the unknown. Exactly as they were expected to. 

Yet just months later the same people enthusiastically voted for Boris Yeltsin as the first President of the new Russia, a radical liberal reformer, and by the end of the year the Soviet Union, arguably the most despotic regime of the 20th century, was no more. 

Comparisons between the European Union and the Soviet Union are hyperbolic - we don't have shortages of staple goods, we don't have break away states or any of the other symptoms of the disorderly fall of the entire economic system of the communist block. However, comparisons with the referendum of 1991 and ours are not entirely misguided.

Cameron, like Gorbachev, is very clear on the answer he wants and makes no secret of his belief that we belong at the heart of the European Union. As in the Soviet Union, the people are to be consulted, but very much on the terms of the leaders. The question - “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” - is not as abstract or convoluted as the one put to the people of the USSR but it begs the same question. What is the alternative? EEA? EFTA? A bilateral free trade agreement? A customs union on the Turkish model without the political dimension? A totally independent trading relationship under WTO rules? Or perhaps worse, a damaging trade spat with our jilted neighbours, keen to quell any thoughts of secession in other member states. 

Ongoing "reform" is another theme where the machinations of Cameron are not unlike those of the last President of the Soviet Union. Cameron's Glasnost so far appears to consist mostly of reforms to welfare to make it more difficult for foreigners to claim benefits. A fairly minor detail in the context of a debate about national sovereignty and democratic legitimacy.  If Cameron did nothing else between now and 2017 he couldn't force through EU treaty change and without the unanimous agreement of the other 27 member states he would find this nearly impossible. Yet this doesn't stop him, Soviet-style, heralding his marginal tinkering as a great success. Nor does it stop our own Pravda like media playing along with this absurd charade.

Boris Johnson, making secessionist noises has already given this game away. by saying that the public should vote to leave in the referendum as this will give Cameron the mandate to demand bigger reforms. It was meant to sound all blustery and pro-British, but the inescapable logic of it is that even if we do vote to leave the EU then this will only be taken by the political class as meaning that they need further "reforms" before holding another referendum. The language maybe all British bulldog but the thought behind it is Soviet.

The referendum on EU membership is not about consulting the British people about an important decision. It's an exercise in getting popular endorsement for a policy which the government, opposition and pretty much the whole political class are committed to anyway.