The Folly of Referendums

James Sharpe thinks referendums are rubbish!

DAVID Cameron’s offer of an in/out referendum on the European Union after the next election is tantamount to constitutional vandalism. Referendums do not form part of the British constitution, and nor should they. The constitutional settlement in the United Kingdom is based on a system of deliberative parliamentary democracy; not on the direct democratic action of its subjects.

Referendums are at best an example of our elected officials abrogating their responsibility; and at worst a blatant attempt at electioneering. It was Margaret Thatcher soon after becoming leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 who said that referendums represent the movement away from consensus to the tyranny of the majority, and ultimately (quoting Clement Attlee) ‘a device of dictators and demagogues’. It is a pity David Cameron has found himself in such questionable company.

There is plenty of evidence around the world for the unsuitability of referendums. The clearest example is California where numerous so-called Citizens’ Initiatives have been introduced. The dire economic straits in which California finds itself is a direct result of these Initiatives. The Californian legislature is now required by popular plebiscites to provide numerous public services and yet has been denied the ability to raise the money needed to pay for them through taxation. Herein lies the fundamental problems of referendums: they are simplistic and irreversible.

They are simplistic because they only allow for a yes/no answer. Most issues are far more complicated than this and can only be decided properly after lengthy debate. It is not possible to create consensus or to weigh up the relative value of various issues in a referendum. And referendums are irreversible in the sense that if it is discovered a mistake has been made or events change, it is only by organising a second referendum that a change in policy can have legitimacy.

Cameron EU speech

Referendums are especially problematic in Britain because of our unwritten constitution and parliamentary sovereignty. It has been argued that referendums ought to be restricted only to constitutional matters, such as the UK’s relationship with the EU. The problem is what is a constitutional matter in the UK? It is obvious what is a constitutional matter is in the United States because it is anything that requires an amendment to their constitutional document; it’s less clear-cut here.

And as for parliamentary sovereignty, the defining principle of the British constitution, it is thrown aside whenever a referendum is held. The principle is already under threat (from the EU more than anywhere else ironically) without it being undermined by its traditional supporters. At the moment referendums are only advisory in that Parliament could ignore the result. But the very existence of a decision by referendum is such that it is unlikely to be too much longer before it is discovered that referendums have a binding effect that overrides parliamentary sovereignty.

What is most worrying is how referendums are being used for electioneering purposes. Just consider what precisely David Cameron has offered. He will not give a referendum in this Parliament, but the next one. In other words he is using (and abusing) the British constitution for political opportunism. What is more, it is providing a shied behind which he can hide his own views. In a referendum what individual MPs think about the EU suddenly becomes irrelevant because all that matters is what the electorate think. A referendum is a tool of political cowardice. If David Cameron wants to run on pro-EU platform, he should run on it.

When politicians are voted in, they are voted in in order to represent their constituents in Parliament, and to be accountable for what they do there. Referendums prevent this vital part of our constitution from working, and in effect removes the accountability of our representatives. There is no accountability if an MP can simply say ‘The people decided it in a referendum’ because an MP is specifically elected to do what is best for the country.

It is a truism that the people want everything for nothing. We have a parliamentary system to protect us from this truism; and then the people decide whether those in Parliament have done a good job doing it. Referendums – or direct democracy generally – almost invariably sound like good things at first sight, but they have profoundly illiberal results, in particular that they allow politicians to hide behind them and avoid scrutiny. The European Union has already reeked enough destruction on our constitution without our imposing it on ourselves too.


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