Referendums are great in theory. In practice they leave something to be desiredby Darren Hughes / July 10, 2013 / Leave a comment
Last week the EU Referendum Bill passed by 304 votes to zero. While its future passage will no doubt be tortuous, it makes the prospect of another referendum being held before too long that much more likely. With the Alternative Vote poll in 2011 and the Scottish independence vote next year, referendums are almost becoming commonplace.
On the surface, a referendum appears to be a pure expression of democracy. What can be clearer than asking the people to decide on an issue, one way or another? But there are serious weaknesses to referendums, and these need to be taken into account by those who demand them.
Often, referendums are used by politicians to try to hide problems within their own parties. In 1975, Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister, called a referendum on membership of the European Common Market partly because he was unable to get his own party behind the idea. Similarly, the Conservatives are split on whether to remain within the EU. By calling a referendum, governing parties effectively abrogate themselves from responsibility for vitally important decisions.
Perhaps this would be a reasonable solution for the times when representative democracy does not do its job. Perhaps it is right to ask the people to decide if a governing party (or coalition) is unable to agree. Sadly, the reality of referendum campaigns tends to undermine this argument.