Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Democracy - then and now – and the People's Pledge

Today is an interesting day for me.

As my regular readers will know, I have an abiding love for Hungary – and today is that country's National Day – in memory of the ill-fated revolution and War of Independence in 1848. I have posted a short article about it on my other blog – A Taste of Hungary – which also contains a short YouTube video of the Hungarian National Anthem, which is widely regarded as the most beautiful of all National Anthems. Click over there and listen to it if you don't believe me.

Hungary's 1848 revolution was an attempt by an oppressed nation to break free of its oppressor – the Austrian Hapsburg empire. It failed mainly due to Russian support for Austria, but twenty years later, following the end of the Austro-Prussian War, a 'compromise' was negotiated under which Austria and Hungary had a Dual Monarchy and, up to a point, separate parliaments and laws on matters other than defence, foreign affairs and finance, which were still determined in Vienna. Although hardly the independence for which most Hungarians yearned, it did provide a degree of autonomy until the end of the First World war and the disastrous Treaty of Trianon.

So March 15th is an important day for Hungarians – and one which always has a special meaning for me.

But this year it is doubly important because today is the official launch day of the People's Pledge – a cross-party campaign for a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. It used to be said that referendums were, somehow, not British and that voters delegated to their MPs the right to make their own decisions on each and every topic that they were required to take a position on. But that concept has been thoroughly demolished in recent years by a succession of referenda on issues ranging from major constitutional changes such as the establishment of an independent Parliament in Scotland or an Assembly in Wales to more minor issues such as whether individual local authorities should have elected mayors. Most recently the people of Wales were asked to determine whether their Assembly should have increased law-making powers, while the whole country will shortly be asked to vote on whether to change the system by which Members of Parliament are elected from the traditional 'first past the post' method to some form of alternative vote.

And yet successive governments keep refusing to allow the people of Britain to vote on whether the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should remain as a part of a European Union which continues to take control of more and more aspects of our daily lives, or whether we should withdraw and revert to the independent role which we have held dear for many hundreds of years.

My views on this are probably very clear, but the really important thing is that we, the people of Britain, have never been asked what we want (the referendum in 1975 was simply to confirm the decision already made by Edward Heath's government to join the Common Market – a quite different type of organisation from today's European Union) and, despite many promises to do so while in opposition, no government has ever been willing to actually put its belief in membership of the European Union to the democratic test. It is very noticeable that many of those supporting the call for a referendum are, themselves, supporters of that membership. But even more than that, MPs such as Caroline Lucas and Keith Vaz believe in democracy and the right of the people of Great Britain to express their own views on that membership through the ultimate medium of the ballot box.

Sadly our Prime Minister, like his two predecessors, reneged on his promise to have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and has made it very clear that he does not intend to allow the electorate to express their opinion on this topic in a referendum.

Which brings me back to the title of this blog. In 1848 (and again in 1956) Hungarians fought to free themselves from oppressors. They failed. But they stood up for their beliefs and eventually, in 1989, they once again won the right to control their own destiny.

Today, on the 163rd anniversary of the events that led to the 1848 revolution, we British have a chance to start a process which might allow us to win the right to once again control our own destiny.

So I urge everyone reading these words to link to the People's Pledge web-site and sign the pledge – and to follow that by bringing pressure on your MP to support the call for a referendum and encouraging friends, relatives and colleagues to do the same.

Then, perhaps, in future years we too can have something to celebrate on March 15th.

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