The British public is to vote in a referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union. This blog is about whether a referendum is a suitable way of deciding the question. Whether or not we should stay is for another time. It gives my views on why a referendum is always the wrong tactic and, secondly, explains why a referendum is never a democratic process.
[Please see EU referendum blog: how did I do to see how I did.]
Why any referendum is a political cop out
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, each of which will generate a different result.
The question we would originally have had to to answer was
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?
This, to me, introduced a bias into the question towards remaining a member. Mentally, we have a bias towards preferring the positive so, simply by the way the question is proposed, Yes is likely to get a subtly increased share of the vote. Following Mr David Cameron’s acceptance of the recommendation of the Electoral Commission, the wording will now be [*1][*2]
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
⊗ Remain a member of the European Union
⊗ Leave the European Union
Even here, the question twice places remaining ahead of leaving; I imagine there will be a small, but worthwhile, given the closeness of the polls, benefit to the remain campaign in this wording.
On (1), presented with this question, my immediate response is to ask “on what terms?” Cameron, our prime minister, has apparently negotiated some changes to the terms of our membership of the EU. How many people think he did a good job? How many people could name even one of these changes? I would be a lot more strongly in favour of remaining in the EU under better terms, but leaving seems to me to be too high a price to pay just because he didn’t do a good job.
Putting that aside for another blog, whether the UK should stay in the EU is too complex an issue to be reducible to a single question to which the only answers are yes and no.
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 which can be relied on to promote a partial, ignorant and trivialising view of the subject.
Some commentators, and many politicians, are only too keen to get on their high horses and vilify anyone who suggests that the British public is incapable of reaching a decision based on a sound understanding of all the issues and a rational weighing up of all the evidence.
I think not. The time and effort needed to do that is simply not going to be suddenly lavished by the man and woman in the street on a subject on which, heretofore, they have chosen to use primitive prejudice, self-interest and a wilful lack of understanding and knowledge to base their views, if any.
[If anyone thinks that is unfair, let’s choose ten towns and cities in the UK, approach a hundred people in each, ask them ten detailed but relevant questions and then collate the answers. The first question could be, “what is the European Union?”]
My argument is not that the population of the UK is woefully ignorant of the issues and, at best, can only talk about some of the outcomes of the issues, as they affect them (though that is the case and it is to be deplored). It is that the population of the UK simply isn’t fit, and shouldn’t want, to make the decision. For all their faults, and they are many, members of parliament are better placed to do this. It is, after all, what we pay them to do.
5 As the campaigns have worn on, it is clear that politicians have no interest in rational debate or the intelligent discussion of various scenarios. It’s all scare tactics.
6 Politicians will use the subject merely as a forum to perpetuate their tired party politics.
This is already being richly illustrated.
Interested parties are already throwing 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”; the fear campaign is already in full swing and fear and greed are not usually reliable bases on which to found decisions.
7 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 the views of those who don’t vote? 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.
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 Referendums are a cop-out initiated by ministers who know they would be blamed whichever decision they took. Therefore they give the job to the people, on the sanctimonious grounds that they are being democratic (why not be democratic all the time?). Senior politicians, as ever motivated solely by their own self-interest, will always avoid as far as they can events that will reflect poorly on them.
Cameron has said that the referendum is more important than a general election [*3]. If that is the case, why give the EU decision, of all the decisions taken that affect the future of the country, to the group of people least capable of making it?
Referendums are mob rule: Why referendums are not democratic
1 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 as well as then to vote on it. But parliament has already done this. And Cameron has returned home with the update.
The decisive vote at the end is an integral component, not some add on, to this process.
So what is proposed isn’t democracy. 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 for it (and for managing its consequences). But 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.
2 [added 4 july 2016] When there is an election in a constituency for an MP, the winning politician, in their resulting speech, almost always makes a point of noting that they are serving the constituency and everyone in it, not just those who voted for them. Indeed this is a legal requirement of them accepting the job. This means that, in theory, and often in practice, the MP serves Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat supporters and those who support other parties and none, and those who didn’t vote. However, as point 7 above shows, such representation cannot be made available for those who don’t vote in a referendum.
3 Personally, I do not want the future history of Britain to be determined by a fraction of eligible people, basing their decision on ignorance and misinformation, fed to them by the gutter press and weak, self-interested politicians. Which is precisely what is going to happen.
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 stupid. We might as well save a lot of money and toss a coin.
* turnout, 1975 EU referendum, 64.5%
[*1] EU referendum question assessment, Electoral commission (undated)
[*2] EU referendum: Cameron accepts advice to change wording of question (Nicholas Watt and Rajeev Syal, The guardian, 1 september 2015)
[*3] David Cameron: EU vote ‘more important than general election’ (ITN, The guardian, 29 february 2016)
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