The problems with referendums in general, and the Brexit one in particular

There are two problems with the current EU referendum.

Why this referendum was a bad idea

The first problem comes from there never having been a need – in an objective sense – for this EU referendum.

By “objective” I mean that there was no external reason – such as a new EU treaty or similar proposal – for a referendum to take place in June 2016.

As such, it can be described an objectively pointless referendum.

(The practical reason for this objective was, of course, political: it was a quick fix by the prime minister to a political problem caused by his own party and the (then) rise of UKIP.  And in launching this needless and divisive referendum campaign as a quick political fix, David Cameron showed all the political judgement of Cersei Lannister.)

This referendum is also not legally binding.  It is advisory.  There is no legal obligation on the government to do anything in response.  The all-important notification under Article 50 is in the gift of the government, and the government can make that notification at a time of its choosing, or never at all.

It is therefore an objectively pointless referendum with no direct legal consequences.  Twice as pointless, in a way, if a thing can logically be as twice as pointless.

And so, as the referendum was about no proposal in particular, the campaigns became about everything and nothing.   There was never any real focus.   And without focus, the campaigns became strident and unpleasant.

This leads us, like Prufrock, to an overwhelming question.

This is a referendum without any objective reason or focus, such as a new EU treaty or other proposal.

It is not legally binding.

So: why?

Why referendums are generally a bad idea

The second problem is about referendums in general.

When you have a parliamentary system, you either take the parliamentary system seriously or you don’t.

And having referendums means you are not taking a parliamentary system seriously.

And if the supposed reason for the referendum is to protect parliamentary democracy, this does not even make any sense.  You cannot sensibly protect parliamentary democracy by the extra-parliamentary means of a referendum.  It is an absurdity, if you think about it.

Referendums are rare in UK political history. Before 1975, there had been none at all.

Issues as fundamental as making war and peace, decolonisation, the welfare state, the abolition of capital punishment, the legalization of homosexuality – huge issues, time after time – were all dealt with without a referendum.

Even fundamental constitutional issues before 1975 were dealt with without referendums – such as royal abdications, measures limiting the powers of the Crown and the Lords, and all the extensions of the franchise.

There is, of course, one good counter-argument: see Scotland and devolution, and the Good Friday Agreement.  The referendums on these certainly dealt with fundamental constitutional issues – but, unlike this EU referendum – there were concrete, discrete proposals put before the voters to vote on.

Not again?

Let’s not have a referendum again, on anything, unless (a) it is a fundamental constitutional issue and (b) there is an actual proposal for fundamental change for people to consider and to vote on.

Ongoing UK membership after 40-odd years of one international organization when there is not any proposed significant change in the offing does not meet these criteria. (A vote on the Maastricht or Lisbon treaties may have done, but certainly not this June 2016 one.)

A referendum should never be a casual fix to a party political problem.

So here’s a radical suggestion: let’s return to being a parliamentary democracy.


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