Are referendums the best form of democracy?


What are referendums?

Referendums are public votes on single issues, usually requiring a yes or no response.

1945: Churchill's proposal to hold a referendum rather than a GE (in order to further prolong the life of a parliament formed 10 years earlier in 1935) was firmly rebuffed by Labour leader Clement Attlee: 'I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum, which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism.'

1975: On the eve of the UK's 1st ever national referendum, Thatcher evoked Attlee's words when recalling the 4 referendums used by Hitler in the 30s to expand and consolidate his regime:'The late Lord Attlee was right when he said that the referendum was a device of dictators and demagogues.' 

Since then, referendums have been used widely to settle a whole range of local, regional and national matters and the consequences of these popular votes have come to play a monumentous role in public life. They have shaped relationships between the nations within the UK, preserved the voting system for elections to Westminster and determined the UK's membership of the EU.

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Recent referendums


Feb 2005, Edinburgh - Should the City of Edinburgh council introduce traffic congestion charging? (Result: No 74:26)

May 2012, Birmingham (and several other cities) - Should Birmingham have a democratically elected mayor?  (Result: No 58:42)


March 2011, Wales - Should the law making powers of the Welsh Assembly be extended? (Result: Yes 63:37)

Sep 2014, Scotland - Should Scotland become independent? (Result: No 55:45)


May 2011, UK - Should FPTP be replaced with an AV system? (Result: No 68:32)

June 2016, UK - Should the UK remain part of the EU? (Result: No 52:48)

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Alien to traditions?

There is much to debate on the constitutional position of referendums, since they are a feature of direct democracy at odds with the UK's system of representative democracy. The principle of representative democracy holds that political decision-making is handed over to elected officials, who possess the time, experience and expertise to determine the best outcomes.

This transfer of direct involvement in the political proecss from the people to their elected representatives may well be imperfect, but it resulsts in the creation of a representative assembly that is held regularly to account by the electorate. Retribution by the ballot box for political performance that dissapoints or fails to deliver is never more than a few years away. Equally importantly, the representative process seeks to thwart an inherent weakness of democracy - the tyranny of the majority.

Direct democracy is a system in which the people, rather than elected representatives, make the decisions that effect them directly.

Representative democracy is the principle that people are representated in government by elected officials rather than taking part in the decision-making themselves.

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The tyranny of the majority

Several key thinkers have identified and developed views on the potential for direct forms of democracy to oppress, subjugate or tyrannise. This has contributed to a lasting impression within the UK's political culture that referendums, the main instrument of direct democracy, are incompatible with representative democracy.

Edmund Burke provided a succint classificaion of representative democracy when he told his Bristol constituents that 'your representative owes you not his industry but his judgement' and 'he betrays you if he sacrifices to your opinion'. The principle that elected representatives should not simply place the interests of constituents above all else became a firm feature of the UK's democratic system.

In 'On Liberty' (1859), John Stuart Mill expressed further caution over the way that democracy could be subverted by a majority that forces its will over a minority. Such a state of affairs, argued Mill, is more comparable to authoritarian regimes than democratic ones.

Ayn Rand asserted that the main purpose of 'rights' was to shelter minorities from oppression by majorities. In explaining that 'the smallest minority on earth is the individual', Rand warned agaisnt the use of democratic tools such as referendums that could be used to legitimise the removal of the rights of minorities and individuals.

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The use of referendums

After several centuries spent avoiding them, recent decades have seen an almost complete reversal in the UK's appetite for referendums. National referendums have been held to resolve proposals to change the voting system for elections to Westminster (2011) and the continued EU membership (2016). Many regional and local referendums have been held recently over matters such as the introduction of elected mayors, urban transport plans and congestion charges.

Referendums are held for a number of reasons:

1. To legitimise and entrench major constitutional change: a popular vote in support of an instutution or change of policy can effectively entrench a decision in a way that defies parliamentary change.

2. To ensure public consultation: some referendums arise from a genuine desire on part of the national or local government to engage with or enthuse the public for a scheme or significat change.

3. To allow the electorate to determine an outcome: governments (or prospective governmentsm, if the referendum is a manifesto commitment) can steer clear of committing to difficult policies that might alienate voters.

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Effects of the Brexit vote

Did the vote for the UK to leave the EU changed the UK's relationship with direct democracy?

Regardless of the result and its aftermath, the 3 years since the UK's public vote on EU membership have seen extensive reflections on its consequences. Indeed, procedures that govern the workings of referendums and the political campaigns in support of them have recieved more attention than ever.

Immediately following the 2016 vote, intense debate focused on the way that the campaign had been dominated by the use of misleading information and statistics on both sides. The Leave campaign's assertion that £350 million per week is sent to the EU, and the Remain's side claim that households would be an average of £4,300 worse off per year following a vote to leave, were widely considered to be misleading. Broad support for independent fact-checking remains, but there is yet to be an agreement on any official measures to control and challenge confusing claims made during political campaigns.

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Effects of the Brexit vote continued

In April 2017, the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published its report 'Lessons learnt from the EU Referendum'. In it, the committee confirmed that referendums have become a permanent part of the UK's democratic system, and to that end the committee sought to clarify their role and purpose. Among other things, the committee highlighted a key difference in the use of referendums. It supported their use of the resolution of key constitutional differences but opposed what the committee termed 'bluff call' referendums, where they are used to close down an unwanted debate, using the example of David Cameron's calling of the EU referendum.

More recently, difficulties in 'delivering' Brexit and sustained calls for a 'second vote' have thrown the nature and purpose of referendums into new light. The infrequency with which referendums are held, unlike in Switzerland where they are a routine part of citizens' lives, is considered to have a disproportionate influence on outcomes, since some voters view them as rare oppotunities to deliver messages of wider dissatisfaction to the political establishment.

Additionally, a significant drawback of direct democracy remains the electorate's basline knowledge of often compicated and disputed issues. Whether many voters had developed knowlege of the benefits and drawbacks of EU membership is debatable at best. Comparisons have been drawn between the 2014 Scottish Independence vote and the 2016 EU membership vote. While the issue of Scottish independence was taight formally in all public schools, data prior to the EU referendum indicated that few people had a strong opinion either way.

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Policing referendum campaigns

While it is a criminal offence to make a false statement about the character of an election candidate under the Representation of the People Act 1983, there is no electoral offence for breaches of trurthfulness during an election campaign.

Many notable academics, such as Professor Sarah Birch of King's College London, have proposed that an official fact-checking body should verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns.

Others, such as Professor Stuart White from the University of Oxford, highlight the threats to free speech of such a policing body. The regular use of hyperbole and the magnification of issues for maximum impact have been characteristics of political speech since classical times.

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Best form of democracy?

For many, the way that referendums can 'bridge the gap' between elections and legitimate major constitutional changes in specific ways offers an inrrefutable argument for their continued use. In almost every case when they have been used, referendums have enriched the democratic process rather than undermined it.

The UK may well cling to the permanence of its representative democracy. But a legislature that is only partly elected (there are almost 800 peers in the HoL with no democratic mandate whatsoever), that has a history of being dominated by an over-mighty executive branch and whose majority-party governments rule with substantially less than majority support from the electorate, can hardly claim higher democratic crediments than the purest form of democracy.

However, the fact remains that referendums are fundamentally at odds with representative democracy. The UK has an elected assembly geared towards deliberate debate, a culture of effective scrutiny to which both houses contribute, and a highly attuned majoritarian electoral system that routinely ajects unsatisfactory governments from office. To shortcut all this by placing complex issues in the hands of the people - often manipulated by organised interest groups that  reduce complex issues to misleadingly simple slogans - is seen by many as a step in the wroong direction.

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