Referendum: A Poor Form of Democracy

The most prominent rebuke I receive on social media, when trying to persuade leave voters of the folly that we are taking the UK into, is “We had a democratic vote, respect democracy!”. I wouldn’t mind so much, if this were also supported by rational, thought out arguments giving the case for why they voted as they did, but this is rarely, if ever, the case.

My challenge to this most favoured of rebukes is two-fold. First, nothing is forever – most of all public opinion, which can change with the wind. Second, that referenda a fundamentally incompatible with British democratic process.

There have only been three national referenda held since the Act of Union in 1707. One to join the EC in 1975, one on the alternative vote system in 2011, and finally the vote in 2016 on leaving the EU.

There is a good reason that they are so rare. Fundamentally, they contravene the basic concept of British representative democracy, which is that Parliament is sovereign. Technically, all three referenda were advisory, so did not actually remove the sovereign power of Parliament, but once the vote is cast, it is next to impossible to ignore the outcome.

Furthermore, voters are easily influenced by current events, priorities, media and popular opinion of the day. One would argue that such wide reaching constitutional changes should be enacted after informed debate, and not left to media moguls with their own interest at stake to lead the national conversation.

I consider myself more informed than average (although by no means an expert) when it comes to politics, and the role of the European Union in particular. A previous article I posted referenced a study that showed that only 27% of British voters surveyed could correctly answer three basic questions about the EU. Yet, these are the people we asked if we should continue our membership, with no real explanation of what the alternative would look like, or what impact it would have on their lives.

My argument is that, now, as negotiations are underway and the horrendous complexities are revealed, and the very real economic damage is starting to materialise – why should the British public be held to ransom by a vote cast when the facts were not known.

This is why I approve the very clear position that the Liberal Democrats have adopted, which is that the people should be allowed a further vote once the terms of exit are known, and how this is likely to affect them. This gives the people a chance to vote to approve to proposed deal, or if they don’t like it to reject it, or reject exit altogether. There is nothing undemocratic about this – and while I am clearly not in favour of referendum after referendum, once popular opinion has been conveyed, it feels like it can only be undone by another popular vote.

Otherwise it does look like Parliamentary sovereignty is supreme (which it is) and the illusion of popular power is shattered.


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