Referendums: still not democratic

Another day, another proof that referendums are the tool of the powerful, not of the people. Today’s comes from David Cameron. The Guardian reports that he’s trying to force a Scottish independence referendum earlier than the SNP would like to hold it – in the next eighteen months rather than in 2014.

Whatever the legal merits of this move (and the Robert Hazell from the UCL Constitution Unit says it’s a bit dodgy), it’s a reminder of how referendums, from the timing of the vote, to the wording of the question, to the issues under debate, are entirely in the control of politicians. In terms of popular power, they’re a busted flush, even before you get on to worries about media influence, or the inadequacy of a snapshot yes/no as a reflection of public opinion.

But what of Switzerland and US states, you might ask – and Janice Thomson does ask in an interesting blog post for Involve. They use referendums a fair bit, and don’t seem to have many problems with them.

Well, perhaps. There are some illiberal consequences of the Swiss referendum system, and some fiscally nasty consequences of the Californian one, but in Switzerland, California, and elsewhere in the US West, the referendum systems are in the constitution and are regularly used – they are, in other words, an acknowledged part of the system of government, rather than a bit of one-off populism tacked onto the side of a Parliamentary system.

At the moment, there is a legal requirement for significant transfers of power to Brussels to be put to referendum, but not for anything else. So in theory (and possibly in practice) we’ll have a referendum on the new Eggs Marketing Directive before we have one on reform of the House of Lords. Is that a reflection of the importance of the issue, or the extent of the political obsession?

I’d rather we had no referendums, or went all-out and wrote a constitution that set out when they should and shouldn’t be used, with the decision out of politicians’ hands. The “who knows, maybe” nature of the UK constitution is creating a bizarre situation where MPs call for a referendum on whether to keep a European status quo that few people care about either way, while thousands march in the streets against spending cuts that won’t get a democratic mandate this side of 2015.

Margaret Thatcher might have been partly wrong when she said that the referendum was the tool of despots, but in the parliamentary system we have at the moment, they’re definitely not the tool of the voters.


Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.