There are some things party politics and representative democracy struggle to solve – those few issues that divide parties, that cross left-right divides. Britain’s relationship with the European Union is one such issue and, as a result, prompts calls from the right and, to a lesser extent, from the left, for referendums to solve the UK-EU issue. This issue has been recently highlighted by the People’s Pledge campaign.

If the parties and parliament can’t solve it, give the people a vote! Simple!

Erm, no. Quite the contrary, especially in the UK.

There are such a multitude of problems. First of all, what do each of the options in a referendum actually mean? As I’ve previously blogged, this is fiendishly hard to know in any referendum on EU matters.

Secondly, how do you ensure a level playing field in a campaign? With the forces of the UK media lined up against it, the chances of Yes to AV succeeding were very low – is there any way, given the UK’s media, that either side of any referendum could be presented equally?

Thirdly, how do you frame a question that encompasses considerable complexity? If a vote is to renegotiate, and renegotiation fails, then what? If a vote is to stay in the EU, does that give a government license to negotiate entry into the Euro or not? Would multiple, iterative referendums be needed?

Fourth, what issues should be subject to referendums, and which should not be? If the UK’s membership of the EU is such a thorny issue, why is the UK’s membership of NATO or IMF not put to a vote? The latter has been used to bailout Greece, while it’s the EU that is the focus of public ire.

The UK has been subject to more referendums since 1997 than in its entire political history until that point, yet we still have no adequate answers to any of the basic questions about how these votes should work, or the role (if any?) of referendums in UK politics. How about trying to sort out some answers to these issues before we go any further towards a referendum on an EU matter? Fat chance I fear, for that would require political leadership and responsibility that’s in short supply across all major political parties in the UK just at the moment.


  1. You have the whole of the political establishment on your side, you’ve got the BBC and a number of major papers and you’ve got the Brussels machine, you’ve got the status quo and you’ve got as many spurious arguments as we have. The sad truth, from my point of view, is that you would probably win, because of the fear instilled into the British people at the terrifying notion of governing themselves (whatever that means).

  2. Matthew Cain

    Those are all good pragmatic points. But there’s the wider, practical problem that referenda are rarely fought on the technical issue before the public. Even if you solved a, b, and c as you suggest, a Euro referendum would still fail to present the real issues to the public.

  3. If I am about to play a football game, I am not going to agree to play the whole 90 minutes defending a huge goal, and shooting at a tiny one. The same is needed for a referendum. Make a level playing field and I’ll be OK to take on all comers.

  4. There’s only one reason you pro-Brussels people don’t want a referendum and we all know what it is.

  5. Craig – not e-democracy, but we’ve got models for widespread direct cemocracy already in place in Switzerland and California. In both cases there are serious problems with (in the former) wild fluctuations between different administrative sub-regions (taxes varying hugely canton to canton – taking the hated postcode lottery of the UK system to extremes), and (in the latter) major legislative stagnation that’s led to massive economic/budgetary issues. Direct democracy is very hard to do right.

    More to the point, referenda have a decidedly unclear position within the UK constitution. The people are not and never have been sovereign in the UK – sovereignty rests with Parliament (technically the Crown in Parliament), and anything that threatens parliamentary sovereignty could easily be challenged as unconstitutional.

    It always surprises me that anti-EU types don’t realise this, considering one of their key arguments against the EU is that it is unconstitutional for anyone/anything to be able to overrule Parliament (usually they quote the 1689 Bill of Rights – this has little/no actual legal weight, but the theory is still there).

    This constitutional angle is a massively important point – advocating wider use of referenda would, if taken up, be one of the biggest changes to the UK constitution in 300+ years. It could potentially undermine the very foundations of how our political system works in ways far more widespread and unpredictable than anything we’ve seen via membership of the EEC/EU. There are no rules on what referenda should be used for, no rules on what they *shouldn’t* be used for, no rules on how they can be triggered, no rules on how they can be overruled.

    Short-version – it’s dangerous to introduce any significant constitutional change without thinking through the consequences. In the rush to appease the politically vocal, we could do far, far more damage than any referendum-advocates realise.

  6. Why don’t we subject everything to referendum and do away with MPs? I’m quite partial to the idea of Neo-Athenia e-democracy. OK, it might not work, but somebody should try it!

  7. Slightly off topic, but I’m really surprised that direct democracy hasn’t already occurred to a greater extent already considering the amount of the population with access to the internet, if we have the necessary security to bank online, why can’t we vote online too?

    As for the original post, I fail to see why there couldn’t be a single website on which the public could give their opinions on any legislation at all, the job of politicians should be to make themselves unnecessary by devolving as much power to as many people as possible.

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