Let’s ban referendums

Britain has traditionally done without referendums. It’s time to reinstate that tradition.

One of the perils of being a Brit abroad at the moment is being repeatedly asked to explain Brexit. I got a small foretaste of this a few years back, when I was travelling in Southern Europe during the climax of the vote on Scottish independence. I was in Italy for the vote itself but a few days later moved onto Slovenia. As it turned out Slovenes had taken quite an interest in the vote. I was told more than once that the referendum reminded them of Slovenia’s 1990 referendum on leaving Yugoslavia.

This comparison has also occurred to Fedja Buric, a historian of the Former Yugoslavia, who has written a provocative post for Sheffield University’s Why History Matters project. Essentially he argues that:

The UK has a lot in common with Yugoslavia. Like Yugoslavia, the UK is a complicated multinational state born out of a contentious historical project that often overlapped with the imperial project of the country that would form the core of the multinational federation. For Yugoslavia, this was Serbia, and for the UK, this was England. Like the English in Scotland and Ireland, the Serbs in Croatia, Kosovo and Bosnia were sometimes perceived as brute conquerors.

This is a concerning precedent because Yugoslavia would eventually disintegrate. The departure of Slovenia removed a chunk of non-Serb voters from Yugoslavia’s population, which left those non-Serbs who remained feeling even more vulnerable. So Croatia followed, then Macedonia and on until Yugoslavia ceased to exist.This would not be a benign process  A number of the departing republics had large Serb populations and many of them were not prepared to be separated from their kin. So – at the behest of Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslav government – they began trying to create ‘ethnically cleansed’ enclaves within the new republics that could be attached to a ‘Greater Serbia’ in the future.

The odds of any breakup of the UK resulting in such violence are remote. Though at least with regards to Northern Ireland, violence is a very real prospect. But peaceful is not the same as desirable. Unpicking a four hundred year old political union would be a hugely disruptive process.

Buric identifies a common problem in both the British and Yugoslav cases: the use of referendums.

These brief exercises in direct democracy not only fail to solve existential societal questions, but they bring to the fore societal divisions that had previously been channeled into civil political discourse (like in the UK) or, yes, been politically repressed (like in the case of Yugoslavia).

Because they are almost always organised around issues that seem existential, their disruptiveness is also due to the fact that they are, mostly, irreversible. Unlike in elections, the losing side cannot redirect its anger into winning the next round because the matter had supposedly been settled forever.

Take the example of the Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia. In 1992, the newly, democratically elected, Muslim-Croat government organised a referendum on whether or not Bosnia-Herzegovina should leave the Yugoslav federation after two of its richest republics, Slovenia and Croatia, had already opted out. The Bosnian Serbs, overwhelmingly in favour of staying in Yugoslavia where they could maintain their links to Serbia, boycotted the referendum knowing that the fact that they composed slightly over 30 percent of the population. Their participation would see them outvoted, but still legitimise the referendum. Predictably, the referendum returned an overwhelming ‘yes’ for independence. Equally predictably, the referendum led to war, as Bosnian Serbs carved out their piece of Bosnia which they wanted to remain in Yugoslavia.

The allegation that referendums threaten democracy is not a new one. In 1975, Margaret Thatcher called them:

[A] device of dictators and demagogues.

And when Churchill suggested holding one in 1945; his eventual successor, Clement Attlee, responded:

I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum

Their hesitancy was likely born of having seen the role referendums played in Hitler’s rise. The would-be Führer used them to pull Germany out of the League of Nations, legitimise the merger of the role of Chancellor and President with Hitler filling both roles, and to approve Austria’s annexation. Similarly, both Emperor Napoleons used them to legitimise their seizures of power.

What these cases illustrate is that precisely because referendums are such a pure expression of democracy their symbolism can become a threat to democratic government. They appear more legitimate than the checks and balances that a constitution provides. That allows ‘dictators and demagogues’ to use them as weapons to break the restraints that keep them from obtaining absolute power.

Now clearly that is not what happened with the Brexit referendum. Rather than granting a leader absolute power, it triggered his resignation. Nonetheless, the same dynamic is visible. A slight victory for Leave over Remain has resulted in a situation where Remainers now have to defend their right to still express a view on the situation:

This creates problems when it is combined with the mundane fact that referendums are harder to hold than votes in parliament. It means they are only held very occasionally. In the UK, for a proposal to become law it must be voted on at least three times by both the House of Commons and the Lords, as well as being considered by committees and receiving assent by the monarch. By contrast, the referendum is a single vote on a single day prone to whatever perculiar factors happen to be in play in that narrow slice of time.

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Check and balances are not just designed to prevent the emergence of dictators. They are also supposed to improve the quality of the decisions made by democrats. They allow for compromise and reconsideration. Yet a narrow Leave victory in a referendum seems to have foreclosed the possibility of either. Most of our political class now seems to consider the UK leaving the EU to be the one immutable fact of our political life. Regardless of an impending recession, the apparent inability of leavers to deliver on their promises and the number of leave voters who now regret their decision, we must drive on towards what increasingly looks like a cliff edge because there was a narrow majority for it in a referendum.

So I want to propose banning referendums. I generally think it’s a strength of the British constitution that it is not codified into a single document but maybe we could create one with a single provision: no referendums. Or if we want to stick with doing everything by informal conventions, how about a new one that says that a government that proposes holding a referendum is deemed to have resigned. That seem fair to me because if you want to be the government then you ought to govern rather than kicking decisions back to the very people who elected you to make decisions.

Would there be a price to pay for this? Sure but not a very high one.

The British experience is that Prime Ministers use national referendums to achieve party unity not to promote the national interest. And it doesn’t even achieve that. Wilson called the 1975 referendum on British membership of European Community with a view to reconciling pro and anti factions within his own party but only a few years later continuing tensions over that subject would contribute to Labour MPs breaking away and forming the SDP. The 2011 vote on AV reflected divides within the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition but only heightened them with many Lib Dems bitter about the way the ‘No’ camp targeted Nick Clegg personally and their claims about the exorbitant cost of fictitious voting machines. And  it remains to be seen whether the referendum just held can stop the Europhobic Tories from trying to destroy their Eurosceptic brethren. Personally I’m dubious.

Now, there is still a theoretical case for referendums in that they allow for ‘unbundling‘. Essentially, when voters choose a party in a General Election they are selecting between set menus of policies. Referendums make more ‘a la carte’ choices, for example, selecting the SNPs approach to social and economic policy but rejecting its desire for independence.

But this theory doesn’t translate very well into practice. It often is not possible to select individual policies because they need to be taken together to work. California’s system of ballot initiatives made it politically and legally possible for the state’s voters to increase spending without raising taxes but that did not make it financially sustainable. And as the current Brexit farrago illustrates it’s generally better to line up policy and personnel. Requiring remainers to take Britain out of the EU is not only strange but it muddies substantially the issue of accountability. If Brexit results in a deterioration in the UK’s position is that an indictment of their implementation of the policy or a vindication of their initial opposition to it? Witness how the SNP insulates itself from scrutiny by attributing anything bad that happens to Scotland to ‘the Tories in London’.*

Now you might reasonably object that this post is the product of my bitterness at the outcome of the EU referendum. That’s clearly partially correct: I didn’t write this when the Scottish Independence referendum produced an outcome I liked. But truth be told I’ve never liked direct democracy much. A feeling that the Brexit vote has intensified not only because I object to the decision it has resulted in but also because it was clearly a bad way to arrive at that decision. The election of a pro-Brexit government with a majority in the Commons would have been preferable. We could have planned better for our departure and avoided the period of transitional instability. It would also avoid the weird dynamic whereby MPs are having to second guess their judgements based on what they take Leave voters’ motivations to have been.

Despite all of this I would not dispute the notion that referendums are in important regards a purer form of democracy than conventional elections. But in politics purity is rarely a wise thing to seek. We need balance: a market economy softened by a welfare state, the ability of governments to make decisions tempered by the rule of law, and majority rule given stability and coherence by being funneled through appropriate institutions. Direct democracy negates those institutions and the valuable function they perform. It removes checks and balances, makes our policy making less responsive to circumstances, convinces people they face existential crises and encourages mutually incompatible policy choices.

We’ve now had three UK wide referendums. Let’s leave it at that.


*Though of course there are occasions on which this is a legitimate point and Brexit is definitely one of them.