Are referendums democratic?
There is some discussion about whether the British public should be offered a referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union. Here are some arguments against the idea that the referendum is a part of the democratic process:
(1) The issue is too complex to be reducible to a single question to which the only answers are yes and no.
(2) Even if it were, any single question is likely to be capable of being phrased in many ways which will generate different results.
(3) Most of those being asked to decide (including me) do not have sufficient knowledge to be able to decide the issue fairly—and many of those do not have the inclination to find out more.
(4) There are precious few sources of comprehensible, unbiased information for those few who are inclined to learn more; most people, to the extent that they engage with the subject at all, will do so through the media who can be relied on to promote a partial, ignorant and trivialising view of the subject.
(5) Politicians will use the subject merely as a forum to perpetuate their tired party politics; that the good of the country is somehow more important than this amusement is clearly an absurd concept for them (or, rather they might understand the concept but it is of vanishingly small relevance to them).
(6) As the turnout is likely to be under 75%*, it is relevant to ask the question, in what sense are those who vote mandated to represent others’ views? This is important because the referendum is intended to make a decision, not to elect people who will represent us, debate issues and then make decisions on our behalf.
(7) It is impossible to interpret meaningfully an act of consciously refraining from voting. In the absence of a system of compulsory voting, not to vote is as valid an action as to vote ‘yes’ or to vote ‘no’. What if there were more abstentions than ‘yes’ votes, say? Does that mean that not doing anything is more popular than doing whatever the ‘yes’ signifies, and should therefore be done in preference to that ‘yes’ action? Even if the turnout were 75% and, of these people, 60% voted ‘yes’, that still means only 45% of the electorate say ‘yes’. So does ‘no’ win, therefore—after all only 30% of the electorate voted ‘no’!
(8) Interested parties are likely to throw a torrent of threats and bribes at the electorate: “Vote no, and Pirelli will up sticks and leave”, “Vote yes, and some other European company will invest millions in your region”; fear and greed are not usually reliable bases on which to found decisions.
(9) Referendums are not democracy; referendums are mob rule. Because…
Why referendums are not democratic
Democracy is rule (kratos, κράτος) by the people (dêmos, δῆμος). In ancient Greece (fifth century BC) the term was coined to describe a process in the city states such as Athens ” in which all eligible citizens participate equally—either directly or through elected representatives—in the proposal, development, and creation of laws” [Wikipedia].
(Incidentally, in ancient Greece, democracy was rule by eligible people. You weren’t eligible to participate in this if
(a) you were a woman, or
(b) you didn’t own land, or
(c) you were a slave, or
(d) you were under 20.
Only some 15% of the adult population was actually eligible.)
So, if you accept the Wikipedia definition, if the population gets to decide, it has to get to propose, develop and create that which is to be decided. But parliament has already done this. As part of this process, the decisive vote at the end is an integral component, not some add on.
If the population is to be accountable for the decision (which they surely must be—this is the whole argument for giving the people the referendum in the first place), they have to be responsible—and they can’t be responsible if they are not directly involved (as Athenian citizenry was expected to be) in the prior processes of proposal, development and creation. A referendum creates a situation in which, of the two groups of people, the parliamentarians are responsible but not accountable, and the population as a whole is accountable but not responsible.
It’s true that our current parliament is only likely to do a slightly better job than a mob. But parliamentarians are accountable in our parliamentary system (the general population isn’t) and, in theory, they have the time and resources to debate the issue properly. The fact that they can’t and won’t isn’t a reason for scrapping the system, it’s a reason for making the system better—and improving or changing the people who operate it. Dumping a poor system for a worse one is a mindless solution. We might as well save a lot of money and leave it to Paul the Octopus to decide.
* turnout, 1975 EU referendum, 64.5%