Civil Service Leak: "A Modest Referendum Proposal"

by | Jun 15, 2016

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CEO of Amati Global Investors Paul Jourdan was put in possession of this memo from an unnamed source the other day and thought he had a responsibility to ‘leak it’ (via LinkedIn).  He hopes it will give a little much needed light relief:


A Modest Referendum Proposal


For Improving Economic Performance and for ending the perceived Immigration Problem in the UK

People in the UK are now getting into the swing of Referendums.  With the publication of the latest trade figures, it is clear that holding a Referendum which creates fundamental uncertainty about the future of the UK is a great thing.   It’s so much cheaper than using Quantitative Easing (“QE”) to weaken the currency, or going into the currency markets with covert central bank operations to sell pounds.  The prospect of the country willingly and spectacularly shooting itself in the foot unnerves even the most diehard investors, and hey presto, the currency drops and our exports fly out of the door.  It has the additional benefit of keeping our politicians so busy that they abandon all attempts to tinker with legislation and stop trying to come up with bright new policies, both of which give our national institutions a welcome breather from the constant onslaught of destructive improvement.  Note for example the remarkable fact that over the past month not a single minister has tried to reform our education system.  A few irreparable family divisions and several months of a virtual news blackout whilst the debates play out seems like a small price to pay, in any case providing many opportunities for slipping out those stories we prefer to bury.

It is only natural, therefore, to ask how we can make the most of this insight, and continue to enjoy the advantage it brings us over the rest of the world.   There is surely only one compelling answer to this:  we are going to need another Referendum to follow not too long after the current one.  We are now in a position to bring a certain science to working out what kind of Referendum this should be.  It needs to be on a simple YES/NO kind of issue, nothing too complicated.   The issue placed at stake needs to be one built deeply into our identity as a nation, such that its overturning would be ordinarily regarded as catastrophic.  If we are too cautious in our choice of subject, and the issue doesn’t raise the stakes high enough, then we will get none of the desired outcomes.  The currency won’t weaken, because no-one will be afraid.  The politicians will lose interest and will go back to trying to prove their worth with bright new initiatives.   It is very important that they devote their whole being to one side of the cause or other.  Some may object that this seems cruel.  But experience shows that far from experiencing any psychological trauma, politicians who take up the cause feel more useful than before, and live happier and more contented lives as a result.


It is also crucial that the issue at stake should ultimately be a lost cause, whose underlying daftness will cause future historians to wonder that such a question could have been seriously raised, and the consequences apparently held so lightly.  With this kind of question the politicians brave enough to champion the losing side can really show their skill.  The population will naturally feel very afraid of the proposal to start with, and the polls will be in the 20-30% range.  But then the most artful amongst them will get to work, and like expert anaesthetists, make even the most painful propositions seem quite harmless and acceptable.  They will be able to demonstrate to the entire population their full repertoire of persuasive abilities.  Although their cause will be deeply questionable, they have the advantage of being able to deploy visionary “grass-is-greener” type arguments.  And as the number of Referendums already held mounts up, the public will become increasingly fed-up with the constant niggling over details and prophecies of doom put forward by those in favour of continuing with the status quo just because it’s taken the a few hundred years of best efforts and learning from mistakes to get to the point we are at.

In other words, it will be a close fight by-and-large, however apparently foolish the underlying proposition is.  The challenge for those taking up the case for change will be to get the result as close to 49.9% in favour as possible.  Anyone who can do this will find themselves the objects of veneration for many years to come, and the whole experience will have been deeply satisfying.  As a result, more young people are likely to be attracted into politics.   All the politicians involved will be able to remember fondly how the real reason why they came into politics was to deal with real issues just like this one: so much so, that it won’t seem to matter that much if they don’t make many new laws.  They won’t need to, their worth will already be proven to the public.

With these factors in mind it would seem a good idea to consider even now what topic would fit the bill for the next Referendum.   Some have suggested already that the obvious thing would be to go back to the already tried and tested question about Scottish membership of the UK.  In its favour, this is one that we know works well, meeting all of the conditions in flying fashion.  However, whilst we know with a good film format that making a sequel is a low risk formula for a sure-fire winner, there is no evidence to suggest that this works in the same way with Referendums.   There could be a risk of indulging the public patience just too much.  After all, even though the arguments deployed on both sides in the Scottish and EU Referendums were essentially identical, at least the actual words were different, as were the political alignments.  It would be poor form to have another Referendum where all these factors were identical too.  No, better to bring in a new topic to keep a sense of moving things along.  To do this the topic needs to follow the progression already in place of each time making it just a bit grander and bigger in scope.


After extensive research across the nation, and having sensed a bit of a groundswell, we can now propose that the next Referendum should be on Britain leaving the Democratic Free World.   The Electoral Commission would no doubt want to keep a neutral tone, perhaps phrasing the question: “Should Britain End or Keep its system of Democracy?”, asking voters to tick “End” or “Keep”.   For the sake of argument then, imagine the campaigns being called “Vote End for Absolute Success” (“VEfAS”) and “Better2Ballot” (“B2B” – not a great name, but bear in mind this will be decided by a cross-party committee, so let’s be realistic).  Now you might counter that there wouldn’t be enough politicians who would get behind the VEfAS cause to get the ball rolling.  We disagree, particularly if we can somehow add the carrot that the official leader of VEfAS could be rewarded with the newly promoted absolute top job in the event of success, and that, as long as they got a half-decent score, they could become the traditional elected type of Prime Minister afterwards anyway.

It’s not difficult to see how a little art applied by the skilful politician backed up by a good campaign manager could get the thing off to an appropriately tense start, and soon the debate would be red hot.  As a warm up the rebel leadership would mock the ineffectiveness of the House of Commons, the inability to balance a budget, the excessive levels of debt, the lack of economic growth, woeful education services, a failing NHS and our lack of credibility in Europe and America.  They would argue that being part of the Democratic Free World has brought many problems to our country, all of which are only going to get worse as we lose all influence.  They would seek to get an early break by focussing on capturing the Leave votes from the EU referendum, who would be feeling exceptionally sore about still being saddled with government from Brussels and the free movement of EU nationals in UK jobs.  By the time this Referendum comes around, the rising levels of immigration will cause even more ire than it does now as it continues to spiral out of control.  This is where the rebels will score big.  If we weren’t a free country, they will argue, it’s a pretty sure bet that nowhere near as many people would want to move here.  It wouldn’t matter that we were still in the EU, this deterrent would work come what may.  It would probably prove so effective, in fact, as to cause net emigration.  VEfAS would be able to call itself to be offering the only credible route to low immigration.

There would then ensue a more technical phase of the debate.  Constitutional experts would be brought into the discussion.  Some would argue that ending democracy in Britain would cause a Constitutional Crisis.  The VEfAS campaigners would dismiss this saying that it was high time that Britain had a written constitution, and that this new constitution could make the necessary changes.  It would probably decide to keep an elected House of Commons, because most modern autocracies have a form of elected chamber, whilst real power could be shifted to the House of Lords under the new constitution, which could then be changed wholesale by the first prime leader, acting with the authority of the Monarch.    On the face of it, these would be minimal changes, and would not affect Britain’s status in the EU they would say.  However this point would be hotly debated until everyone had lost interest and moved on to more exciting matters.  Some wags from the loosely allied B2B campaign would point out that VEfAS couldn’t decide whether they were going to allow voting or not, so there was no point voting for them!

Over in the US, the recently elected Democratic President would issue dire warnings about the consequences of Britain voting to End its membership of the Democratic Free World.  Her views would be derided by VEfAS as cheap scare tactics from someone who should know better, pointing out how her lack of ability to implement any real legislation in Republican controlled Houses, just showed how democracy leads to failure.  Her bitter defeated opponent, from his residence at Trump Tower, would call the absolutists “brave” in contrast to the coward at the White House, saying that where Britain led, others would follow, and citing his admiration for the model created by President Putin, a man he “could do business with”.   How many Mexicans did Russia have for example?

Advocates for VEfAS would point to the success of a command economy in China with its rapid economic growth over such a long period of time.  The media would be awash with tales of Chinese achievements and educational prowess.  A study would be commissioned showing how leaving the Democratic Free World would be good for business, as it would allow governments to make faster decisions which would not flip flop with a changing government every five years.  Employment could become more flexible, and above all, a lot cheaper.  Wishy-washy liberals, it would claim, have done the economy great damage for too long, with their Human Rights and their European Court of Justice, their anti-employer stance, and their Health & Safety gone crazy.   The country’s shambles of an energy policy, on the cusp of bringing blackouts back to Britain, would be held up as an example of the economy about to be brought to its knees by the democratic process failing for decades to allow any kind of decision making to happen.

It would be easy to imagine how the country’s economists, along with the IMF, the OECD, the IFS and so on, will line up each with a litany of disasters that leaving the Democratic Free World might bring.   The beauty of this is that the currency would weaken wonderfully in anticipation, and exports would once again fly out the door, with no need for expensive central bank interventions.  Fortunately only a minority of voters pay any attention to economics, and it is well proven that a wave of the hand, combined with the phrases “Scare Mongering” and “Pure Conjecture” are easily enough to cause a majority of voters to avoid the sense that they should maybe skip the next episode of X-Factor to scrutinise the economic papers directly for themselves.  If that didn’t go far enough, it could be insinuated that these organisations are all funded by democratic countries who would naturally insist that they come out in favour of Britain remaining part of the free world, so their views should be discounted anyway.

On the fringes of the debate, some individuals in the Shires will no doubt appear on phone-ins arguing that Democracy is not in the Bible, being more of a pagan Greek kind of tradition.  Would not a more hierarchical power structure in the secular state foster better discipline and order, and reverse the slide in moral standards, they will ask?  There would be a certain degree of pandering from VEfAS campaigners, some of whom would mention much stricter licensing for Sunday trading, and an end to the creeping liberalisation of sexual freedom and women’s rights.  These assertions would scandalise the mainstream and be denied vigorously by the VEfAS leaders of course, but the insinuation would have its effect.  Others, more in the Richard Dawkins school of thinking by contrast, will note that there is nothing very democratic about evolution, and that perhaps a more evolutionary approach to the country’s governance would just bring us closer to biological reality.  Occasional remarks might even be made in the Twittersphere about Democracy really being nothing more than a Jewish conspiracy.   Amongst Muslims the responses will be just as mixed, and sparks will inevitably fly, adding usefully to the overall sense of tension and uncertainty, which is after all the whole purpose of the exercise.

As the final day draws close and the polls narrow perilously towards End, former Prime Ministers and Leaders of all parties will appear in the media to campaign for the old democratic system which they so love.  They will be variously dismissed as “out of touch”, or “just trying to prop up a failing system which gave them power”, or “making it clear just what a bubble the Westminster elite really live in”.  Ex-President Obama, the Archbishop of Canterbury, eminent historians, University Vice-Chancellors, writers, actors will likewise queue up with impassioned pleas making rich arguments.  Each would be dutifully reported, followed by reference to a dismissive quip from the other side seeking to discredit them personally, adding a knowing “they would say that wouldn’t they”, or a generic “they should be ashamed of themselves”.

A humorous aspect of this particular referendum will be the changes required to the BBC’s coverage of Parliamentary debates.   Daily reports on Today in Parliament would be littered with interjections from VEfAS campaigners in order to remain balanced . . . “the [XYZ] Government’s Bill was passed by 15 votes, but supporters of Vote End said how this showed how morally bankrupt the current system of democratic voting has become, and how this highlighted we need a new more controlled type of government”.  A nice twist we think, and with each repetition on news bulletins throughout the day people would start to accept that the current system is dodgy, aided by screaming headlines from the tabloids.

Then will come the moment when the whole Referendum strategy really works at its best.  Everyone will be completely agog, wondering “how did we get into this mess”.  The British Pound will be once again trashed on the currency exchanges, and our exports would pick up according to plan.  Migrants heading for the UK might start to reconsider their choice.  Traffickers would no longer see the UK as good business, and would start to advertise better-selling destinations.  A few days before polling day the VEfAS campaign may well get its final “told you so” boost from reports that the Jungle at Calais was looking like it might soon be closed due to lack of interest.

With so much to gain from this escalating Referendum strategy, it would be shallow to make the obvious objections.   There’s really no point arguing that this could all be avoided if we could raise the level of public engagement with politics to allow sophisticated well documented arguments to consistently defeat populist five second sound bites, and that empty dismissive quips would be seen as just that;  or that it would be better to deploy the massive public resources expended on the Referendum to such matters as closing the gaping international tax-haven loopholes that keep global wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, largely beyond the reach of Western Governments which are crippled by debt and will probably be unable to balance their budgets for the foreseeable future; or that over time the population might come to understand that the complex hard-won web of political alliances and institutions which we have come to take for granted as the underpinning of our security and prosperity in the post-War era  might actually be something best kept away from the clutches of politicians who see the opportunity to gain massive amounts of power by breaking them up.  No, the benefits of Referendums can only be realised if we are prepared to go “all in”, and put the most cherished parts of our national identity on the line.  If they can’t stand the odd blast of well calculated propaganda from some rising political stars chasing the top prize, well, are they worth having anyway?  Let’s go forward with the strategy and start planning now for the next great Referendum.  It’s really too much fun to resist.  And what could possibly go wrong?


IFA Magazine’s Brexit coverage is supported by Old Mutual Global Investors. Join them on Tuesday 28 June at 9.30am when Mishal Husain talks to Richard Buxton and team in a LIVE video interview. Register now.



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