[Pedant watch: Referendums is the correct plural when the word is used as a gerund. The plural is referenda when the word is used as a gerundive – in other words, hardly ever.]
This post had better start with a health warning. If you are a school pupil working towards an exam – Higher Modern Studies or AS Politics – then this post would not be a good answer, because it is going to lack balance; and balance is a key component of the mark-schemes in those subjects. But I am too old to sit exams any more (I used to teach Modern Studies and Politics) so I do not have to write in a balanced way. I can tell the truth. And the truth about referendums is that they are bad things and democratic government works better without them.
Yes, they are democratic in some ways, and I am an enthusiast for democracy. But they are a thoroughly unsatisfactory way of translating the wishes of voters into action. I was thinking about writing this post before the recent shenanigans in eastern Ukraine, but they surely strengthen my argument. The Putins of this world like referendums. Enough said!
In the first place, they have a very dark history of dishonesty, intrigue and tyranny. All through the nineteenth and early twentieth century they were used by tyrants and dictators to prop up their rule. Napoleon I had one. Hitler had one. Cavour used them. Napoleon's was rigged by his brother. Cavour, in Sicily, used ballot papers with “Si” [Yes] already printed on them. There is a famous scene in the novel “The Leopard” by Giuseppe di Lampedusa that depicts the dishonest count in one Sicilian village – behind closed doors, by a supporter of the new regime, who announces a 100% “Si”. Well, that is a fictionalised version of events, but I have never read of it being challenged. Hitler's took place after the Nazis were well established, with a reputation for murdering opponents. It took courage to vote “Nein”, and over 90% did vote “Ja”.
One trick used by these crafty manipulators of democracy was to offer no alternative to the answer they wanted. Do you want Victor Emanuel to be King – Yes or No? Do you accept Hitler as Fuhrer? - Yes or No? That was not a democratic choice. Democratic choices are what we have at election-time, with a range of alternatives: Labour or Conservative or Lib Dem or Green or SNP. (I live in Scotland).
In the UK we have been using referendums with increasing frequency since the 1970s. No mainstream UK politician, as far as I know, has been anything other than a believer in liberal democracy, and there has been no intention, yet, of making them the excuse for the removal of liberties. However, it appears to me (and I am not naturally cynical, despite a life-time studying history) that our leaders have only used them for base political purposes; never for good democratic reasons.
For example, Harold Wilson faced the prospect of a split Labour Party over the issue of Europe – the Common Market as it was called in those days. So he held a referendum so that his opponents could campaign heartily against him but then, when they lost the referendum, be able to fall back into line with their honour intact. You will have noticed how many referendums on European issues are discussed and promised these days. This is because both the Labour and the Conservative parties are deeply spit over Europe and promising a referendum in certain circumstances (and then, if possible, finding an excuse not to have one) is one way of papering over the cracks.
This is despite the fact that the matters in dispute – the European constitution, human rights, currency arrangements, trade regulations – are mind-bogglingly complex. Hardly any of the voters will understand them (I do not claim to myself) and they are quite unsuited to simple Yes/No or In/Out decisions. The Conservatives are promising to promise an In/Out Referendum after the next election. If we get to that point imagine the simplistic newspaper headlines, the late-night discussion programmes that hardly anyone watches, the cosmopolitan smoke-screens and the Little England ranting. No voters will study, or understand, the terms of the treaties in detail.
The way parliamentary democracy works is that we elect people who have the time and the energy and the interest to become expert enough on matters of complexity to make our decisions for us. If we think they are doing it wrong we can chuck them out, but that is quite different from thinking that we could do their job for them. A reputable Mori poll just the other day found that people's perception, and the facts, on matters that affect public policy are wildly diffferent. For example: Perception - £24 of every £100 paid in benefits is fraudulently claimed; Fact - £0.70p For example: Perception - 15% of girls under 16 become pregnant; Fact – 0.6%. In referendums vital decisions are made by voters with that level of ignorance. (I am not being patronising here. I include myself in this, I could no more give an informed opinion on matters of high finance than I could on pig-breeding.) In the heat of a referendum campaign the media cannot be trusted to give full, balanced coverage (Many journalists will, but how can those ones be identified?) and politicians certainly can't.
To make matters worse, the simple yes/no format of referendums is all too likely to give rise to TV head-to-head debates between party leaders. These have about as much validity in the democratic process as trial by combat to the judicial system. If the issues are important they must not be decided on which leader has the best TV appearance, which leader has the best debating skills, or which leader has the best back-up team to provide training for the debate.
Another feature of referendums that runs counter to liberal democracy at its best is that they lead to a tyranny of the majority over the minority. Perhaps that is better than the other way round, but it does not have to happen at all. When decisions are taken by a parliamentary process they can be discussed and adjusted at massive length as they are being taken, they can be reviewed by second chamber, and they can be fairly easily repealed if they turn out to have been a mistake. But with referendums, the winner takes all, and for ever. 51% of those who vote can over-rule the wishes of the 49% who lose, with no subtleties or adjustments allowed.
This is made worse by the fact that referendums often involve low turn-outs. When Wales was told in 1997 that it had to vote on whether to have an Assembly or not, roughly 50% did not vote and roughly 49% of those who did vote voted no. As a result Wales got an Assembly even though nearly three-quarters of their electorate had not voted for one.
Enthusiasts will say that non-voters don't count, that their apathy excludes them from the democratic process and so on. This may be true in practice, but it is a bad thing, and bad democracy. The non-voters may not be apathetic. They may not like either of the stark choices on the ballot paper. They may feel reluctant to play the party-political games of politicians. They may feel unqualified to judge on the matter. But if the subject is one of great importance there ought to be a mechanism for taking their views into account; referendums offer none.
Sometimes politicians to hold referendums to avoid a party split. Sometimes they hold them when the couldn't care less about the result. (In the 1990s several cities in England were asked whether they wanted elected mayors or not.) Sometimes they use them to pretend that they are making concessions when actually they aren't. (Do you remember that referendum on whether we should have a rather feeble and ineffective type of Proportional Representation?). Sometimes they use them because their opponents have backed them into a corner where to say “We won't have a referendum” sounds undemocratic and feeble. Sometimes they have them because they are pretty certain to get the result they want. Sometimes they have them to abdicate their responsibility for making tough decisions.
Our governing classes are, thank goodness, usually able to dig their heels in and say “No. We won't have a referendum. We will do what we were elected to do and take responsibility for policy”. (One can mention the issue of capital punishment as an example). When they do offer a referendum, beware.