In Scotland there’s been talk of little else but the big referendum on whether Scotland should got it alone for two years. In Ireland the cycle of questions pushed out to the people seems to be speeding up…
Olivia Kelly in the Irish Times notes they concern “reducing the voting age to 16, reducing the age barrier for presidential candidates from the current 35, and allowing same-sex marriage”, with “a fourth referendum could be held on the establishment of a unified patent court”.
Unlike the Scottish case, the government will struggle in all but one to get the material case across. Technocratic fixes to the constitution are notoriously hard to communicate, and invite trip ups (like the last Taoiseach honestly but naively admitting he hadn’t read the Lisbon Treaty).
It’s in part the piecemeal nature of the changes that’s the problem. But there may be another much more fundamental problem with referendums as outlined in fastidious detail by Paul Evans back in 2010…
Doubt and equivocation are a good thing. Instinctive certainty often isn’t. As Darwin put it,“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.“ Doubters and equivocators are more likely to abstain in referendums, and – following the logic of the Dunning-Kruger effect, that’s a bad thing.
It’s hard to see in the case of Scotland (a subject I’ll be returning to tomorrow), or indeed gay marriage, how else these matters could or should be resolved. Besides the Irish Constitution (being the complex and detailed document it is) demands that any reforms that appeal to it’s primary force must refer the matter directly to the sovereign, ie the people.
But perhaps, we could learn a thing or two from the Icelanders who gave serious power and authority to their constitutional assembly to produce a constitution fit to defend it’s own national interest against for example “the institutional capture of governments by the investment banks, the world’s most powerful lobbying groups.”
It’s as though the effort to face the public with all these small granular matters is ebbing the will or the capacity of executive and legislature to think in larger terms.
Or as Paul has put it…
Referendums are often used to deal with the difficult questions that political parties dare not address during elections. They allow politicians to park awkward or divisive questionswhen they’d be better offering joined-up answers. They provide a way of letting the political class off the hook.
They drive out the deliberative element in policymaking. The referendum question is an appeal to reflexes rather than an attempt to get a thoughtful response from the public.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty