This evening I took part in a panel, organised by the Hansard Society, to discuss referendums. I stood in at short notice for the Hansard Society Chair, Peter Riddell, who could not make it. By short notice, I mean shortly before I caught the train to travel to London once I had finished teaching.
There were three of us on the panel. Vernon Bogdanor made the case for referendums, though finding little merit in Thursday’s referendum. Steve Richards and I argued against referendums. I drew attention to the arguments for and against as rehearsed in last year’s report of the Constitution Committee on referendums. I noted that the arguments for were hardly borne out by Thursday’s referendum. (Does anyone think it will enhance public support for the system of government or that it will settle the issue?) My principal objections to referendums, though, were that they were essentially misleading, unbalanced, and dangerous.
They are misleading because they do not necessarily reflect the true opinion of electors. There is usually a simple and exclusive choice and electors may have other preferences. Electors may be offered a choice between a and b in a referendum, but they may prefer c or d, and may prefer a to b, but c to a. We cannot know why people vote as they do and do not know whether true preferences are captured.
They are unbalanced because one cannot guarantee an even playing field for the two sides of the argument. One can introduce some controls, but what if all the parties, or the principal parties, combine on one side of the argument, or most of the print media fall on one side? There is the additional problem of ensuring that the debate remains on the substance of the question and not some extraneous matter, such as the popularity of the government.
They are dangerous because they constitute majoritarian tools (and may be the product of moral panics). They can be deployed against minorities. The decision may also be made by a small number of voters (if no threshold is applied) – as may be the case on Thursday. And fundamentally, they undermine parliamentary government. They can bind government in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to tackle serious economic or other issues (as has happened in California) – the electorate is in effect having the opportunity to act in an irresponsible way, since they do not then hold themselves to account – and, especially in the UK where we do not have a codified constitution, it de-legitimises issues not subject to a referendum. People opposed to an issue will argue that it is not legitimate until subject to a referendum: x was subject to a referendum, so why not y? We have no mechanism for drawing a clear and objective line.
I have a principled objection to referendums. The problem is that succeeding governments have not had such an objection. We therefore find ourselves in a situation that is confused and problematic. Thursday’s referendum illustrates the problem.