Examples from history, and from overseas, tell us something that should be obvious—referendums only make sense when the public knows what will happen after they voteby Robert Saunders / March 27, 2019 / Leave a comment
If we have learned anything from British politics since 2016, it is the destructive power of the referendum. Unshackled from traditional loyalties or the constraints of party politics, referendums can shatter governments, dissolve political allegiances and destroy the careers of successful politicians. They can undermine the legitimacy of Parliament, setting “the will of the people” against their elected representatives.
Since 2016, MPs have been denounced by tabloid editors, the European Research Group and even the Prime Minister for frustrating this “will,” treated not as representatives of the public but as “traitors,” “elites” and “saboteurs.”
That poses a challenge to anyone who prefers parliamentary to plebiscitary democracy: if the referendum has been so destructive, why would we want to repeat the exercise with a “People’s Vote”?
The short answer is that referendums are not intrinsically bad for representative government. On the contrary. Referendums can uphold parliamentary democracy or subvert it, depending on how they are used. Properly handled, this week’s indicative votes could begin the process of bringing our direct democracy and our representative democracy back into partnership.
The referendum entered the bloodstream of British politics in the years before 1914, in a context not so very different from the present. These were years of tremendous political volatility: new parties were challenging the traditional political order while Parliament was grappling with issues—like “votes for women,” “tariff reform” and “Home Rule for Ireland”—that did not fit easily within established party lines.
The most influential proponent of the referendum was the Edwardian constitutionalist A.V. Dicey. On matters of fundamental constitutional principle, Dicey argued, the referendum could take over the veto power formally vested in the monarch. Parliament would legislate in the normal way, but the law would not become operative until the electorate had given their approval.
This, he argued, would be a “People’s Veto”: a check on a temporary majority in Parliament, that would come at the end of the legislative process.
In this model, parliamentary and plebiscitary democracy would play different, but complementary roles.
Parliament would draw up, approve and take responsibility for specific legislative proposals, in the usual manner. Yet the public could then block changes that did not enjoy majority support.
This is very close to the model of the recent abortion referendum in Ireland. After a consultative process…