Getty
Show Hide image

It's perfectly sensible to want a second EU referendum. Here's why

Far from being anti-democratic, re-running the vote once the facts are known is entirely fair, says Bo Rothstein. 

In 1955, a referendum was held in Sweden on whether the country should continue to drive on the left or if there should be a switch to the right. A government committee investigating this issue had recommended such a change, the main argument being that this was the traffic system in all neighboring countries (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany. . .)

In the mid-1950s, opinion polls were not regularly held and the result of the referendum came as a big surprise. No less than 83 per cent of the voters wanted to keep left-side driving and only 15 per cent supported a change. Constitutionally, however, referendums in Sweden are not binding and in 1963, a very large majority in the Parliament (294 against 50) decided that the country should switch. What is interesting is that there was hardly any critique of this decision from the very large majority who had voted for keeping driving on the left.

The actual change of the traffic system took place in 1967 and I vividly remember the massive information campaign during my first weeks in high school. The general mood then and ever since has been that it was a very wise decision by the Swedish Parliament to disregard the referendum and decide to change. The 83 per cent who voted against a change had simply been wrong.

Although the issue of UK remaining or leaving the European Union is a bigger thing, this shows that the result of a referendum should neither be seen as set in stone nor as having absolute democratic legitimacy. In fact, it is easy to come up with examples where it is clear that majorities have been completely and utterly wrong. This is true in ethical issues (think of the white racist majority in the American south during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, or the situation in Germany in the 1930s). But it is also true when it comes to matters of fact, as shown in the many local referendums in the United States about water fluoridation. Although the scientific evidence of the benefits of this is crystal clear, many local referendums have produced majorities against. This has been detrimental both to the voters’ (and especially their children’s) personal health and also resulted in much larger bills from their dentists.

In political philosophy, this is known as the “epistemic problem of democracy”.  Simply put, political legitimacy is not only dependent on a decision getting support by the majority. In addition, the epistemic theory of democracy points to the need for the decisions to also be in some sense “true” and “right”. Decisions need to be “true” in the sense that they are not based on what is known to be factually wrong. A case in point is former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s policies for handling the HIV/AIDS disease. According to a conservative estimation, the policies launched by the democratically elected South African government in this area caused the premature death of some 340,000 individuals. As is well-known, the party responsible for this catastrophe continues to have the support of a majority of voters in South Africa.

Moreover, decisions needs to be “right” in the sense that ever so large majorities should not infringe on individual human and political rights, as now seem to be the case in Turkey.

In this light, another illustration about the problems with referendums can be seen from the decision about nuclear power in Sweden. After the disaster at the Harrisburg nuclear power plant in the U.S. in 1979, the Swedish government panicked and decided that a referendum should be held about the future use of nuclear energy. The issue of nuclear had been very high on the country’s political agenda since the beginning of the 1970s. The political parties produced three alternatives for the referendum, all stating that nuclear power should be abolished. The first proposed that the six existing nuclear power plants should be closed within 10 years and the six new plants that were either planned or being constructed should not be opened. The other two alternatives differed about public or private ownership but both stated that nuclear power should be abolished when other energy resources were available. In the debate, this was said to be within 25 years.

The majority voted for these two latter alternatives, thought of as ending nuclear power “within reason”. The referendum was held in 1980, and now, 36 years later, nine of the 12 nuclear power plants are still running. A clear majority voted to have nuclear power abolished by 2005 but this has not happened. The reason is that the successful proposals won because they promised something that in reality they could not guarantee, namely that other (and more safe) sources of energy would be available within a specific time horizon. The referendum in 1980 is now generally seen as an embarrassment.

The implication from this example for the Brexit referendum is this. If the Brexit referendum had been about nuclear power, the “remain” alternative would have been that the country should continue to use this source of energy. The “leave” side’s alternative would have been that nuclear power should be replaced by “magic power”. Magic power, the leave side would have said, is free, safe and clean and thus a better alternative than nuclear power.

My point is this – the leave side won because they, like the winning side in the Swedish referendum about nuclear power, promised something that does not exist. The idea that the UK could leave the EU but still have access to the single market without paying into the EU budget is a clear fantasy. Within days of the referendum result, leading politicians on the leave side had to admit that what they had promised was a mirage. Similarly, the idea that Britain will get access to the EU market but say no to free movement of labour is also pure fantasy – the likelihood that countries such as Poland and Romania would not veto such a deal is zero.

The slogan “Brexit means Brexit” is thus meaningless because no one knows what a Brexit alternative will look like. This is the downside of referendums, namely that it is too easy to win if you launch an alternative that is a mirage. Real politics is about taking responsibility for making difficult choices between far-from-perfect “real-world” alternatives. The implication is that when the leave side finally produces a deal that instead of offering magic specifies the actual conditions under which the United Kingdom will leave the EU, there should be a new referendum.

Bo Rothstein is Professor of Government and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford

Getty
Show Hide image

Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

0800 7318496