WHY WE ALL KNEW THAT REFERENDUMS ARE FOREIGN RUBBISH!
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We used to know why national referendums are a bad idea, back in the days when everyone called them referenda. It was part of the general political consensus that they were unBritish; something that only happens in foreign states with an unhealthy leaning towards dictatorial regimes and practices and slightly crazed charismatic leaders.
Of course we knew about Switzerland with its numerous referendums at national, cantonal and community level, and said “Well, Switzerland is different”, all cuckoo clocks and cheese. And of course there are lots of initiatives and referendums in the USA, with all manner of different systems in different states. But these are both countries with federal constitutions, and federal states were generally different and weird, and certainly foreign.
Local Level Referendums
There used to be a curious system of referendums on pub opening hours in Wales which took place county by county (which had various unintended consequences such as increasing the amount of drink driving in Wales; and the 1965 Young Liberal conference in Colwyn Bay (Denbighshire, dry) having to decamp on the Sunday evening in a fleet of buses into Rhyl (Flintshire, wet)). But that was Wales and we knew they were a bit weird there, as well.
It’s true that in England there is the slightly eccentric institution of the Parish Poll which parish electors can trigger at an Annual Parish Meeting. But these are only advisory and take place quite rarely at the very local level of the parish. There is a new spate of referendums to adopt Neighbourhood Plans under the Localism Act – over 200 of them so far. But again only at the local parish level.
Do Referendums Promote Democracy or Undermine it?
We knew that referendums undermine Parliament and therefore the basis of liberal democracy – the system we thought we had invented in which there is open public information and debate, but people then elect representatives whose job is to consider proposals in depth and detail as well as principle. In other words, decision-making is deliberative as well as democratic. What is more, the result of a plebiscite is a snap-shot in time. It may represent the settled will of the electorate; or it may not. If the result is close it is unlikely to do so.
Who wields the most power in a referendum?
A referendum can only be restricted to a simple question, often “binary” – yes or no – with no chance to express nuances of view or even third or more options. This means that the people who decide whether and when to have a referendum – and the question to be decided – have immense power. We all knew how referendums had been abused by Hitler and Mussolini and a long list of autocratic toss-pots and we rather despised President de Gaulle for the way he manipulated them in France.
One problem, exemplified by de Gaulle, was that the subject of the referendum is often peripheral to the real reason for calling it which can be aimed purely at personal or political advantage. What is more the results of referendums are often unpredictable. Chance or manipulated events during the days and weeks before polling day might be critical to the result. Irrational and unbalanced propaganda put out by campaigners and the media are a real danger. In particular referendums can too easily be hijacked by loud-mouthed bigoted populists appealing to people’s worst instincts – tap-room ignorance turned into ranting tabloid lies.
We knew all these things. We knew that it would never happen here, in our mature parliamentary democracy and with our increasingly educated electorate. Didn’t we?