The EU Referendum and the fallacy of fairness

‘But it’s just not fair!’ As millions of pro-EU Government leaflets land on the nation’s doormats and the Treasury publishes a pro-Remain dossier, Leave campaigners are incensed. And on the face of it, they seem to have a case. The Government is putting a finger on the scale and using its resources and heft to influence this referendum. However, judging the conduct of this referendum on how ‘fair’ it is misunderstands both its purpose and the role it plays in our system of representative democracy.

What exactly is a referendum? The answer seems simple enough: the government asks the population a binary question on an important issue, and acts on the basis of the result. Democracy at its purest. The people decide and the government follows. How pure and noble. In practice, however, a referendum is not about that at all.

Governments do not as a rule hold referendums because they have genuinely no idea what policy path to take and need to ask the population to decide on their behalf. Rather, they call them knowing full well what they want to do, and, for tactical political reasons, need the assent of the population to proceed.

In this case, the Government has a crystal-clear policy position. The United Kingdom should remain in the European Union. More than that, the Government believes that leaving the EU would be harmful to Britain and the Prime Minister has said as much on numerous occasions.

The Government is not holding the referendum to learn the people’s opinion on what policy should be pursued, it is seeking the people’s approval to pursue a policy it has already decided on. The distinction is crucial.

A Government exists to serve and further the national interest. While rational people can disagree on what the national interest is, a Government that has the support of Parliament has not merely the right, it has the duty to do all in its power to further what it sees to be that interest. It has no duty at all to give the opposite view — to spend taxpayer money to promote a view that it considers not only mistaken but actively damaging to the national interest. To do so would be irresponsible and perverse.

This Government, elected less than a year ago, has a clear mandate to do what it is doing. It has an overall majority in the House of Commons. It has never made any secret of its intention. It is calling a referendum in order to secure Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. It is using all legal means at its disposal to ensure that happens. And it is totally correct in doing so. Spurious claims of unfairness are entirely misplaced.