Question 1: Are you in favour of referendums? Please answer either Yes or No.
Question 2: Are you in favour of referendums if you have good reason to expect the majority vote will not be the one you would wish? Again, please answer Yes or No.
Question 3: Do you think there are some questions that are just too complex to answer with a simple Yes or No? Please answer … but you get the idea.
I’ve just been in Dublin, where yesterday they were being asked to vote in a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon reform treaty. This is pretty much the same document as the one we used to call the Constitutional Treaty, but French and Dutch voters put that one out of its misery, so now it’s been reborn without its constitutional fripperies.
I was in France and the Netherlands, too, for their referendums three years ago, so I may be in danger of becoming an EU referendum expert. And the one thing I have learned is that when people vote in these exercises, they tend not to answer the precise question on the paper.
Whatever the actual wording, the question people prefer to answer is: Do you approve of what the government is up to? Or perhaps: Do you approve of what the EU is up to? Or even: Are you happy with things in general, all things considered, by and large?
And because most people have little difficulty in finding things to complain about, the Noes seem to have a built-in advantage. (I’m writing, of course, before the announcement of the Irish referendum result. Maybe the Irish will prove to be rather happier than their French and Dutch counterparts were in 2005.)
The best question I saw asked in Ireland was in the Irish Independent: “Why should I say Yes to a legal document I don’t understand?”
So perhaps it would be useful for me to give you a taste of what the Lisbon Treaty actually says. It starts like this:
“1) The preamble shall be amended as follows:
(a) the following text shall be inserted as the second recital:
"DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of
Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and
inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of
(b) In the seventh, which shall become the eighth, recital, the words "of this Treaty" shall be replaced by "of this Treaty and of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,";
(c) In the eleventh, which shall become the twelfth, recital, the words "of this Treaty" shall be replaced by "of this Treaty and of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,".
I could go on, but I strongly suspect you’d rather I didn’t. (There are 260 pages of it, and you can read every word here.) To be fair, the Irish foreign minister, Micheal Martin, did point out when I interviewed him that people don’t necessarily read every word of the Finance Bill when it’s presented every year – but that doesn’t mean they’re not in favour of their taxes going down.
But then they’re not asked to approve it in a referendum either. It really isn’t easy to persuade people to say Yes to something which reads like the very worst that lawyers could come up with.
Oh, and if you want my thoughts on David Davis, the man who’s resigning as an MP because he has no disagreements with his party but wants to take a stand anyway, well, I’m sorry, but my flabber is still totally gasted. As you probably know by now, I’m not often left speechless, but …