Viva referenda

So, how was the referendum for you? Entertaining, enlightening or excruciating? Certainly controversial, in any event.

Over the last couple of weeks of the campaign, there were more and more voices to be heard denouncing the very existence of the thing: this wasn’t in the national interest, it was said, this was just a device to settle a Tory civil war and it should never have been held. Further, let’s not do it again.

Mostly these voices came from those who feared a Leave vote, which is presumably why they increased in volume as the outcome became ever less certain. That, of course, does somewhat undermine the argument. Because if this really was just about the dissident UKIP types on the right-wing fringe of the Conservative Party, then it wouldn’t matter very much at all: it might be a waste of money and effort, but the result would be assured. Now, though, the suspicion is that the electorate might return the ‘wrong’ verdict, that democracy might not support the status quo.

So, should we have had a referendum? Well, the promise to do so was in the Conservative manifesto at last year’s general election. And, assuming that those who voted UKIP were also in favour, that means that a shade under half of those who voted gave their support to the idea. That seems a sufficient proportion of the electorate to trigger a democratic exercise in consulting the people.

There is, of course, the argument that we shouldn’t have referendums at all, that it undermines the representative system of government Britain has spent centuries establishing and refining. This was the position of pro-Europeans the last time we were asked about Europe as well. In 1972 George Thomson resigned as Labour’s defence spokesperson in protest at the party adopting the referendum as official party policy: it ran the risk of ‘undermining parliamentary democracy,’ he explained; such things are ‘invariably a weapon against radical and progressive change’. Similarly, Margaret Thatcher accused Harold Wilson’s government of trying to ‘pass the buck’, and of seeking to ‘bind and fetter’ parliamentary democracy.

But that ship has already sailed. The 1975 referendum wasn’t even the first in British history; that was in Northern Ireland in 1973, when 57.5 per cent of the electorate voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. Then there were the referendums on Scottish and Welsh assemblies in 1979, which were both lost, before both nations had another go in 1997. And that marked the real start of the referendum era. Since then, there have been consultations on the Belfast Agreement and the London mayoralty in 1998, the proposed North-East Assembly in 2004, greater powers for the Welsh Assembly and the Alternative Vote in 2011, and Scottish independence in 2014. There have also been dozens of local votes in towns and cities on whether to have a directly elected mayor.

Like it or not, the use of referendums as a means of determining constitutional change is here to stay. And Britain’s membership of the European Union falls pretty squarely in that category; this is constitutional change on the grand scale. The issue has been gnawing away at the body politic for too long now, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable that we should make a decision one way or the other.


But it’s been so divisive, some have said. It has split the country and created a poisonous, hateful, ugly mood. This complaint was, for obvious and understandable reasons, aired particularly in the wake of the killing last week of Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen.

Whether the motives of the alleged murderer were related to the referendum is, of course, completely unknown at this stage. But what is certain is that an attack on democracy – as the deliberate killing of an MP is – should not be a reason for suspending democracy. (In this context, the decision of other major parties not to contest the resultant by-election is entirely wrong.) We chose last year to hold a referendum, and the predictions are that there will be a high turnout today – this is the democratic process at work, and it should be respected.

And that predicted turnout is the consequence of a genuine political debate that has – in spite of received wisdom – consumed the national electorate in a way that few things have in recent decades. We might like to complain of referendum fatigue and pretend that we’re bored by it all, but over the last couple of weeks, the discussion about Europe has become a real phenomenon. People are talking about politics at a level and in a way that I can’t remember us doing as a country before. And they’re not being – so far as I can tell – deflected from the issues by turning this into a protest vote against the government, which is always the worry about holding a referendum.

At times, it has to be admitted, the level of debate between politicians has been pitiful. Not just the fear-mongering, suspect statistics and downright lies on both sides, but also the ludicrous tendency in modern Britain to reduce all politics down to the NHS. (Or ‘our NHS’, as politicians like to say.) Someone should have spelt this out at the beginning: health is not a European issue, it’s really not relevant.

Meanwhile a great many things that are controlled by the EU have been marginalised or simply ignored. The Common Fisheries Policy, for example. There was a rather gimmicky attempt to put the issue on the agenda, with the flotilla of fishermen on the Thames, but they were shouted down by Sir Bob Geldof in a fit of arrogant egoism. The Common Agricultural Policy, on the other hand, didn’t even get that far. As an electorate we remain terribly ignorant of how these things work. We’re aware that the CAP subsidises farmers, but how many of us know who gets to distribute the money? Is this the preserve of the EU bureaucracy, or is it devolved to national governments? Most of us wouldn’t be confident of our answer, even after this long campaign. (Unless we watch Countryfile, which has always been quite keen on this stuff.)

So, we may not make the most informed of decisions in this vote, and maybe my Lion & Unicorn colleague, Sam Harrison, is correct that referendums are okay on simple choices but ‘fail on complex decisions‘. But it’s not much more complex than many prosecutions that are tried by non-specialist jurors. And however many factors there are, it still comes down to a choice between two options. It doesn’t seem to me unreasonable that in a democracy, we sometimes trust to the wisdom of the crowd.

Put another way: I think that the electorate can claim a pretty good track record. I can’t speak for all the mayoral decisions, but in every major referendum we’ve held thus far, it seems to me that the people have made the right call on every occasion.

As for stirring up division, we should be honest and admit that the divisions always existed. It’s just that one side has been shut out of the debate. In a strictly proportional electoral system, UKIP would have won eighty seats in last year’s general election; the fact that it only has one MP is a shocking indictment of our voting system. This referendum can be seen by way of being an apology for that insult to democracy.

Yes, the rhetoric has been a bit ugly at times. Of course it has. This is the future of the country we’re talking about. Like the Scottish independence debate two years ago, this is the kind of issue that – in a previous era – might well have been settled by war. Instead we now have referendums and, for the most part, fairly civilized arguments, and when it got messy, well, that’s what it looks like when we don’t all agree with each other. We just need to recognize that diversity isn’t skin-deep; it also means accepting other people thinking different things to us.

I’ve no desire to be in a state of perpetual referendum, but, on balance, I think this has been rather a good exercise in democracy. Mind you, I’m writing this before the polls have closed. I may feel different about things if the electorate get it wrong…

* The correct plural, is of course referendums, but referenda reads better in the case of the title here. My apologies to pedantists.


3 thoughts on “Viva referenda

  1. Pingback: Wrong, wrong, wrong (again) | Lion & Unicorn

  2. Pingback: Post-referendum blues? | Lion & Unicorn

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