It seems that it has become one of the latest causes of the Permanently Indignant Left to call for a referendum on TTIP. TTIP? That’s that trade thing, right? Yes, and that’s your first test. Tell me what TTIP means. I ask, by the way, having guessed myself, gotten it wrong, and having to look it up. TTIP is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the vast trade deal currently being negotiated between the EU and the US. Depending on whom you listen to, it’ll either boost trade and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic, or it’s a secret plot to hand over vast power to giant corporations who can then go about privatizing everything.
I’ll admit, I knew next to nothing about TTIP, and so went off and found both pro and anti TTIP information, and the more one reads the more you realise how complicated modern international relationships are. Indeed TTIP shows how modern society is a vast collection of moving parts and TTIP and the EU and WTO are an attempt to put some sort of order on them.
Which leads to a bigger question. Are voters actually capable of making a rational decision about these issues?
I’ll be honest: if I were to vote in a referendum on TTIP, I would have to do a few hours study before I knew even vaguely myself whether I thought it’s a good or bad thing. Will other voters do that? Many will, but I suspect most won’t. They’ll be influenced by the opinions of public figures they trust, or, and this is where it gets worrying, by vague nuggets of information they half hear.
What would a TTIP referendum look like, in any EU country? Nearly half the voters would allege its all part of some conspiracy, with everything from the Lizards of Davos to The Rothschilds lobbed in for good measure. Some voters would vote against anything because the government proposed it. In Ireland, some councillor would almost certainly demand local people vote against it unless St. Jude’s gets a new roof for its changing rooms.
I’ve no doubt there are smart people who know TTIP inside out who have serious issues with it. Good. Let them fight it out with other smart people who support it because the rest of us really haven’t a clue.
The truth is that asking the public to vote on TTIP is like asking the public to decide over new techniques in brain surgery. These issues are becoming too technical for the public (myself included) to give anything other than a vague opinion, often based on hearsay information directly contradictory to reality. I’d wager that a large proportion of people who want to stop TTIP can’t tell you what it stands for. If anything, we’ll be voting for who is on what side. So let’s just cut out the middleman and let them decide in parliament.
Is this elitist? Yes. We’re now living in an elitist world. Elite surgeons operate on our loved ones. Elite engineers design and run the nuclear power plants than stop our grannies freezing to death in the winter. Elite chemists design the medicines that cure diseases that killed our ancestors. So why wouldn’t we expect to have elite leaders to run our countries and negotiate our laws and treaties? The alternative is ending up with presidential candidates asking why nuclear weapons can’t be used more often.
But what about us, the voters? Who aren’t experts in nuclear proliferation or labour mobility or life expectancy management? What’s our role? Are we just not intelligent enough to play a role anymore?
Here’s the truth: we don’t need to be experts. But we do need to be able to ask the right questions of experts. We need elite legislatures and voters who know that yes, we do need legislators who know more than we do.
That means we need to take voter education as seriously we require drivers know how to drive.
The programme for government talks of setting up an Electoral Commission to run elections independently. I’d argue that its remit should also include the aggressive year-round education of voters, additionally funded perhaps by a small tax on election posters? Not just on the hows of the political system, but actual facts about our society that voters should know before voting. Is it wrong to educate voters that the government jet and TDs salaries and pensions are a tiny part of the budget? Or that most Irish people get more from the state than they pay in? Or that the rich actually pay the most tax? It’s time for the state to ram political, fiscal and economic reality down the throats of voters, for their own good. Informed voters are as important to a society as qualified surgeons.
We’ve see the alternative in the US, which on the verge of electing a fool as president, on the backs of voters whose ignorance (“Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya!”) is bordering on a belief in a political version of witchcraft.
Democracy isn’t a guarantee of good government, but the last line of defence against tyranny. But in order for it to work, voters have to be able to tell when they’re actually under attack.