Referendums have become part of common political discourse in recent years. The chequered history of democracy since the beginning of the 20th century, with two World Wars, the rise of communism and the general ebb and flow of democracy’s use throughout the world has firmly cemented democracy as an untouchable facet of any civilised society within the minds of sophomores, sociologists and second rate political commentators alike.
While it would be wrong, I believe, to propose any radical or realistic alternative to democracy (and would indeed likely leave me friendless), the position democracy now holds in the mind of the 21st century zeitgeist, and political popular culture has raised its status to that of divinity; untouchable and boundless.
Like any object of humanities fruition though, it is subject to the laws of nature, and thus a form of balance must be found. Unfortunately, referendums have displaced this balance, and thus, as when a population expands beyond it’s natural bounds it is reduced to a state of equilibrium, democracy has similarly expanded to its limiting extent, and must be reduced to a prior position where it is no longer a danger to itself.
It is for these reasons, that referenda can no longer be allowed to continue within the United Kingdom.
- Undermines Parliamentary Democracy
It was the belief of theorists such as Edmund Burke that the job of the representative was to not only communicate the wishes of the electorate to the central parliament, but also to use their superior judgement in the exercise of their power, whether or not such views are representative of their constituents views. Thus, referendums undermine this ancient and proven practice. Indeed, given the emphasis on the constitutionality of parliament throughout the referendum, such a method of deciding the future of parliamenty sovereignty seems strange.
- Complex Issues oversimplified
Egalitarian education in the United Kingdom is some of the best in the world, and therefore more than many nations, the population of the UK is qualified to participate democratically. Nevertheless, unlike a normal general election, membership of the EU requires at least a simple understanding of the “economics and sociology of trade and immigration, the politics of centralized regulation, and the history of nationalist movements”, as Jason Brennan of the University of Georgetown says. Thus, the oversimplification of a hugely complex issue to meet the criteria of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ on a ballot box is detrimental to the legitimacy of the outcome.
- Imbalance of Resources / Undemocratic Campaigning Techniques
A referendum opens campaigning entirely up to the people. Unlike a conventional election, private groups and organisations form far more commonly, attracting donations by private business, and often become extremely wealth, such as in the case of the ‘Yes’ side in the 1975 EEC referendum. Not only does this allow one side to reach people on a far larger scale, it also allows the use of modern, corporate marketing techniques that psychologically sway the mind of the voter, as they would sway the mind of an unsuspecting customer. This is fundamentally unfair and undemocratic.
- The Issue of Low Turnout
Another issue, especially likely to arise with the increased use of referendums is voter apathy, and low turnout. This essentially results in a minority governing a majority. This has been seen in the Swiss case, in which referendums are used very regularly, and due to this, in many turnout is very low.
- Deployed for Political Expediancy
Since governments can stage referendums at will, they tend to be deployed for the sake of ease or to solve political problems such as party divisions. Thus, despite them being practically immoral and unconstitutional, they are chosen for their ease. Cameron for example, pledged to hold a referendum on British EU membership in order to regain power and quell euro-scepticism among his back bench, a decision made at a pizza restaurant in Chicago O’Hare airport; not exactly the ideal picture of democracy after the accumulation of over 2000 years of political theory, philosophy and actual trial and error.