Thursday, 22 April 2010

No referendums please, we're British

Until the 1970s the British regarded the referendum as an alien concept used by authoritarian foreigners to gain a spurious legitimacy. In this land of enlightened parliamentary democracy referendums had, I believe,been used only twice, each time at local level, for English local authorities to decide whether or not the cinemas should be allowed to open on Sundays, and ditto for the pubs in Wales. Then along came Tony Benn and his agitation on Europe and the British decided by 2 to 1 that we should remain a member of the EU.

Today all three parties are either promising or seeking to avoid referendums, notably on whether or not to join the Euro, change the the electoral system or remain in the European Union.

Referendums are an unsuitable for making these decisions for the following reasons:

  • they do not decide issues "once and for all." Whoever loses continues to pester for another referendum until they obtain the result they want (as we see on the issue of membership of the EU)
  • it is almost impossible to phrase a neutral question. "Do you think that Britain should remain in the European Union?" and "Do you think that Britain should leave the European Union" are both more likely to get positive rather than negative responses
  • it is difficult to ensure fair and equal funding and publicity for all sides of the question. Those disgruntled by the 1975 decision on Europe have a legitimate grievance on this score
  • the electorate are highly likely to vote on some issue other than the question asked; usually to take a swipe against the government (eg France on the EU Constitution and Ireland on their first referendum on the Lisbon Treaty)
  • some issues, such as the nature of the electoral system, are too complex to be reduced to a "Yes/No" answer, or even a series of options.
  • referendums are more often than not chosen by governments when they want to shirk the responsibility for making a decision.
In a parliamentary system we choose our MPs to use their judgment on our behalf. Let them get on with it.

It can be argued, however, that MPs cannot be trusted to decide how they should be elected, since they will choose the system that best suits their own interest. Hence MPs elected by" first past the post" will naturally prefer that system.

In that case, the decision on the electoral system should be made by a Citizens' Convention


  1. I think you make a number of compelling arguments against referenda. Indeed, it's often my argument against direct democracy - we elect people whose judgement we place our faith in, so that they may spend their full time devoted to grappling with the issues, rather than conduct a mass straw poll which will invariably comprise mostly of people who are far less qualified on the issues.

    However, I do think that when it comes to transfer of sovereign powers - which do NOT belong to Parliamentarians, but rather to the British people themselves - that it ought to be their final decision as to whether they are self-governed on any given matter or whether they cede that to a foreign body.

    That said, I do think promises of referenda across the spectrum are being used for things other than straight decision-making. In this case:

    * It can be argued the Conservatives are promising referenda on Europe to wash their hands of negative decisions when dealing with other EU leaders;
    * That the Liberal Democrats are offering in/out to get EU powers passed by making the alternative the stark and extreme choice of instant withdrawal;

    Which ironically, given both of our personal political allegiances, leaves Labour's offerings of referenda on electoral reform as the least "political". Unless you can think of alternative motives?

  2. I'm glad we're in broad agreement on this issue, Chris. The ceding (actually I prefer "sharing")h of powers in the Constiution/Lisbon Treaty is much exaggerated. Neither shared anywhere near the powers that the Single European Act, signed by Mrs Thatcher in 1992, did. Actually, as you know, she claimed she didn't realise what she'd done, which is a bit rich coming from someone with a First Class degree from Oxford.

  3. Indeed; as I often point out to my friend Andrew (Tennant; do you remember him, in my year at school), who is a practicing Liberal Democrat - I still strongly maintain that there is far more common ground between today's Conservatives and today's Liberal Democrats, than there is between either party and Labour. That is of course, if we are to start on a basis where we ditch the absurd stereotypes that Conservatives are all inbred toffs out to screw the poor at all costs, and that Liberal Democrats are all zany half-crazed hippies with eccentric and impractical views.

    I think it's an ill justification that Mrs Thatcher didn't know what the ramifications were of her decision; I suspect it more likely that she thought the price was modest compared to the gains, and at this stage was probably still transitioning from her broad Euro-enthusiasm if the 1970s (I believe the Act in question was actually signed in 1986?). That said, I think that was a time where we were still a European Economic Community focussed on shared trading, rather than European Union seeking "ever closer political union". It seems to me that the very nature and aims of the organisation we joined have fundamentally altered; it certainly does lend some merit to a referendum at some stage, despite the disadvantages we both concur on!

  4. As far as I know Chris, but haven't time to check in these exciting days, "ever closer union" was in the original 1957 Treaty of Rome.

  5. True enough. I am minded to suspect that whilst political integration was never a clearly-stated objective in public, it was almost certainly one of the underlying aims of the original Treaty of Rome as a replacement to the proposed EDC and EPC, most likely in response to World War II and in the misguided belief that abolition of national sovereignty would prevent future war in Europe.

  6. National sovereignty has not been abolished: it has been shared in order to tackle international issues such as climate change, crime , trade etc.