“We must build a sort of United States of Europe.”
Winston Churchill, 1951
“Owen Glendower: At my nativity
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
Of burning cressets, and at my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shaked like a coward.”
Shakespeare, Henry IV Part. 1 III. i
It is the day of the big, stupid vote, and everyone is on tenterhooks. It goes without saying that it is a day not just of rain, but of thunder and weather warnings, of humidity and roiling mists, like the birth of Owen Glendower (“I say the earth did shake when I was born”). What supernatural acts, acts of witchcraft and portentous magic, are we carrying out, each in his little booth, as we scrawl the mark of an illiterate on our ballot?
Referenda are, it is well known, the work of the devil, popular with dictators and tyrants. The will of the people, unmediated and unfiltered by the sagacities of their elected representatives, is a raw power for evil, gleefully harnessed by the power-mad. We cannot be trusted to do anything more than express our various prejudices (whether for or against something). Trump rails against the obscurities of the American electoral process because it prevents him mainlining popular discontents.
This is also true of any sort of voting. The difference is, we expect our elected representative not only to be smart, or motivated, or capable; but to learn on the job. Off they go for their elected term, and get an education in the ways of government, in the complexities of the arguments. Their own prejudices and idiosyncrasies will be subdued and rounded off by the gravity of party.
All this is Edmund Burke, I should say, not me. Edmund Burke would have despised a referendum. And while he might have taken a dim view of Churchill’s remark, he would have approved the historical sensibility on which it was made. Look at history, and take the long view. Which is not going to happen in a hundred thousand voting booths, or be born with accompaning thunder and portents.