I’m anti-Brexit but I’m more frightened of living in a country that uses referendums

What an awful week this is turning out to be. For perhaps the first time in my life, I’m dreading news bulletins as much as I’ve always dreaded opinion-TV.

Where the BBC’s Question Time has always caused me to snatch up the remote control, now ordinary reportage has the same effect, coloured by this wretched polarising referendum and a wider revolt of the political fanatics from all over Europe and in the US against a more measured and deliberative democracy.

The question that appears to need settling is this: which of the following will lead to a certain catastrophe?

  1. the end of a thousand years of British independence at the hands of Eurocrats and a Turkish tide?
  2. the immediate collapse of our economy, the NHS, and the Cornish Pasty industry as we slip inexorably towards WWIII?

Slugger’s older readers may recall a post of mine back in 2010 here where I made the case for the banning of referendums on the grounds that they are a travesty of democracy. One point that I missed at the time is that we have no option but to only debate at a level of frothing overstatement when we are doing so as part of a referendum. It’s almost as though the use of nuance has been made illegal.

If we were to step back and talk about it reasonably, we’d probably agree about the wider historical situation we find ourselves in; if we were to plot human progress (however we define it – peace, justice, prosperity, innovation, voice, agency, happiness) on a graph, I’m fairly sure that it would have climbed steadily, and banked upwards more steeply since 1945 in line with the fortunes of liberal democracy.

Things will probably continue to get better, no matter how we vote on Thursday. Personally, if we vote for Brexit, I think that in Britain and the wider EU, that line will rise less steeply, but it will still rise. I’m pessimistic about our potential to improve as quickly as we could do so I’m voting ‘Remain’.

Reasonable, non-hysterical pro-Brexit people probably have those upward trajectories the other way around, and we can argue about that, but we should be able to agree that it’s not life-and-death, whatever the campaign teams say.

The much bigger problem is what Brexit may be a symptom of – the decline of representative democracy – and it being replaced by a more shrill and plebiscitary one. It may just be an awful coincidence that an MP was murdered by someone who didn’t reject British citizenship for the first time since 1812,* but it feels like a commentary on a political culture that has been polarised in a way that I’ve never seen before in my lifetime.

I think we are already seeing how that could lead us over a cliff.

The EU is a product of nations who can deliberate internally, negotiate together and collaborate. If it’s nations turn into mandated bands of vetoed political delegates with no room to compromise, losing our ability to influence food-labelling standards is going to be the very least of our worries. Even in 1914, governments had some room to manoeuvre by comparison to states that are bound by plebiscites.

The problem isn’t the existence, or lack of, an EU, but the possible end to pragmatic governance.

I’m not even saying representative democracy is the best of all possible worlds. There are certainly issues that parliaments can’t discuss without having conflicting interests. But anyone who wants to replace it needs to come up with something a lot better that this polarising demagogic lie-fest that we are going through at the moment.

We are heading for a catastrophe, not because of what a government will do in response to a pro-Brexit vote** but because we no longer have an established understanding of what the pre-conditions for a good democracy are.

As long as we are not responding critically to the announcement of each new referendum, we are heading for trouble. If I were offered a promise that Referendums would be banned in every European state in return for Brexit, it’s a deal I would accept in a heartbeat.

*I exclude the murders by Irish Republicans not to play them down or excuse them in any way, but to stress that they were the product of an actual declared warfare and not just part of the warp and weft of internal political life
**I am betting fairly strongly against this btw, but that’s another story

Living in London but working all over Britain and Ireland. A left-leaning Labour Party member and blogger. I’m on twitter as @paul0evans1 and I blog mainly at the Local Democracy blog though I’m in lots of other places as well. I’m a massive fan of Google Reader – please follow me and share the better posts from your feed?

  • hgreen

    Referendums are a failure of democracy. If the UK electoral system was working properly, for the past 20 years or so, those in the electorate who were opposed to the EU would have had appropriate representation in parliment rather than just one UKIP MP.

  • Brian Cairns

    It’s not exactly Referendums themselves that are to blame, since their purpose is to establish which direction is most preferred by the people, this I would say is democracy in action.

    However it is the systems in place and the way they are presented by the media, we are given the impression that one choice will be sunshine and rainbows and the other will be doom and gloom, and we are to blame if it all goes wrong.

    Nobody wants that responsibility, and referendums shouldn’t ever be debated on the extreme circumstances, it should be a lively yet friendly showcase of the benefits on each vote rather than only attacking each other on a worst case scenario.

    I live in Scotland, supposedly the most politically engaged nation in the UK, yet I would say it very clear nether side has a positive movement here, most want Leave simply because we either do not trust Westminster to run the UK effectively for the benefit of the people or we want to ensure a better position for another referendum we are more interested in, sometimes it’s both (it is for me).

    It’s noticeable that most politicians will tell you how they are voting though to make up your own mind, people don’t want to be told how to vote anymore they just want to hear the facts and decide themselves, the moment the systems and media make it a life or death decision people will switch off and be disenfranchised again…though the more paranoid part of me suspects that would be preferable to those in power.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Yes, Brian, it’s most interesting to find someone talking about “democracy” but clearly stating that the people cannot really govern themselves. If people can be trusted to make a correct choose of representatives surly they can actually be trusted to decide on the policies those representatives are brokering for themselves?

  • Kevin Breslin

    It’s far more “democratic” to have a government with the support of 30% of the population dictate everything for the other 70%. Imagine just how more “democratic” Northern Ireland would be if a Sinn Féin-SDLP coalition were able to govern here entirely on that figure?

  • Anglo-Irish

    Referendums are necessary in a situation where a country has a written constitution and part of that constitution requires any change to be agreed by a majority of the people.

    Other than that set of circumstances we elect people who are supposedly well informed – and are also presumed to have the interests of the country at heart – to make these decisions for us.

    The fact that we are having this referendum is an indication as to how self interested and prepared to put party advantage before country many of our politicians are.

    Cameron only offered it in order to persuade right wing Tory’s to vote Conservative rather than desert to Ukip.

    If this ends in Brexit as it may well do Cameron will very probably go down in history as the Prime Minister who destroyed the British Union and caused his country serious financial problems.

    A majority of MPs wish to retain our EU status so there would be no problem apart from Cameron making a complete balls of assessing the situation.

    Additionally the Remain campaign has been a complete disaster and has even managed to annoy those of us who wish to stay in the EU.

    The referendum has also caused huge rifts in the parties and no matter what the result it will have damaged future relationships.

    All in all a complete and unmitigated shambles.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Ultimately this depends whether you think democracy is an act of self determination or some ideologue that must remain a sacred cow so one indivual’s narrative and personal philosophies remains above the will of the people and unchallenged by the will of the people.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Kevin, I think we’re very much on the same page about the DUP!! I won’t see it in my lifetime, but I can imagine a situation where people come to maturely craft their own politics through Direct Democracy and may be weaned away from the one size fits all party system that the DUP thrive on, with their block votes from the PUL corner and all. But for now thank you for pointing out just one more way that we are finding the term democracy employed to mendaciously describe something that is almost its antithesis.

  • Ernekid

    The legal blogger David Allen Green has an excellent article about this referendum and the use of Referendums in general.

    My favourite line he uses is ‘David Cameron showed that he had the political judgment of Cersei Lannister’

  • chrisjones2

    I dont agree at all. If we want a representative democracy then in theory we should welcome the widest possible involvement in decisions. New technology – and I dont mean the current iteration of social media – could lead to viable ways to do this but we need to be prepared for the impact and consequences.

    First many people dont want to make such decisions. They are happy to subcontract it to those they see loosely as professionals who represent them. Thats fair enough if we dont make voting compulsory as it si already in some conventional elections in some countries

    Second , when they do want it we need to be prepared to accept the consequences. The best example of this is perhaps the death penalty. While opinion varies with time I suspect that on balance a vote might go in favour while a vote by the professionals will always go against. Locally we have had periods in the past where there was active intimidation of those wishing to vote because terrorists knew the outcome and didn’t want it demonstrated

    The issue in the connected future will therefore be – how much democracy can we accept?

  • chrisjones2

    doh …I heard Polly Toynbee spouting this line yesterday on Radio4.

    The problem is that within the last 5 years we offered the voters the choice of a PR electoral system and they utterly rejected it …so the UK system seems to work fine in the view of the vast majority of electors (which surely is the point)

  • chrisjones2

    Yeah ….but then they couldn’t get the votes so its a bit like asking what if we had a National Front Government

  • chrisjones2

    Locally its not just the voting system …..its the fact that we have so many politicians for so few people that 3000 votes can see you become an MLA . This leads to micro votes and supports the extremes and religious nutters who in a wider franchise would be laughed out of town. Those people need representation too ….but now they often dominate

  • Reader

    I think that in a FPTP system we need to have a referendum now and again on major issues as otherwise the system is clogged up by single issue parties and tactical voting.
    However, I would rather have PR, coalitions, and no referendum than have FPTP and referendums.
    Finally, once a referendum is under-way, there’s no reasonable objection to letting the people speak.

  • Anglo-Irish

    The voting system used in the Great Britain part of the UK isn’t fit for purpose in a country which purports to be a democracy.

    No single party since WW2 has formed a government in the UK with even 50% of all votes cast.

    Tony Blair formed a Labour government with a decent majority in 2005 with 32.5% of all votes cast.


    Ask yourself why we weren’t offered an opportunity to vote for PR + STV why were we offered the AV system?

    After all PR+ STV is currently in use in part of the UK isn’t it and so common sense would dictate that we be offered the opportunity to bring the whole of the UK into line wouldn’t it?

    The problem being from the politicians viewpoint is that they prefer the current system which suits them fine.

    As PR+STV is the fairest most democratic system yet devised it is difficult to argue against it.

    AV on the other hand has flaws which can be highlighted and so served the politicians purpose quite well.

    Next month I will have lived at my current address for 34 years and at every general and local election the result has been the same.

    My vote is of no consequence, democracy my arse!

  • Brian Cairns

    I never stated that people cannot govern themselves (politicians are people too after all) you speak of not trust of the people themselves rather than those in power who are those who should always be accountable.

    The only alternative you’re seemingly suggesting is dictatorship.

    Democracy is the voice of the people, it’s the polices that political parties use to earn our trust and votes that must never be compromised on, but unfortunately all too often are made on a foundation of exaggerated ideals.

  • hgreen

    And remind me again how we made the PR decision again…..mmmm…. using a referendum. Man argues in favour of referendum using a referendum example. Doh!

    Ultimately referendums reduce nuanced and complex issues into binary choices which is completely inappropriate and which is why we elect full time MPs.

  • Brian Cairns

    How can you seriously claim democracy should pave the way for dictatorship, they are counter productive and at totally opposite ends of the political spectrum.

    30% is not a majority nor a mandate that can be trusted by the public.

    Your notion of how government is more trustworthy than the people that cast the votes is totally outlandish and out of touch with reality.

  • On the fence!

    Yes but the one UKIP MP is in return for 12.6% of the national vote, one Green Party MP in return for 3.8% of the vote.

    By contrast 56 SNP for 4.7% of the national vote, 8 DUP for 0.6% of the national vote!!!!

    Seems there’s greater failure in our “democratic” system than the (very) occasional referendum!

  • chrisjones2

    Or Woman arguing we need PR to support democracy when electorate votes decisively to reject PR

  • GEF

    We need a referendum. Only the rich and wealthy landlords have for the past 4 decades lived off handouts from the EU. Paid for by the working class taxpayers.

  • Gerry Lynch

    Extremes and religious nutters would be laughed out of town in elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly if it had fewer members? You sure about that?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    And there was me thinking we were agreeing about the democracy in action thing! Brian, have you never heard of the idea of Direct Democracy?


    Democracy is the voice of the people certainly, but the voice of an oligarchic group of professional politicians who are open to financial lobbying by wealthy interest groups is not the authentic voice of the people, it’s the voice of a minute number of “the People” selected by what may have been a decent enough system in the nineteenth century, but at a moment when through new technology actual direct democracy is possible, it is becoming increasingly redundant, as the drop in voter numbers shows.

    If people are considered to be mature enough to select representatives to put forward policies, they are surely mature enough to directly decide on these policies themselves rather than to nominate someone else to do their thinking for them. To my mind anyone using the word democracy in any other way is on some level unwilling to believe that there fellow citizens can be trusted with control of their own destinies, and need a substitute “adult” to make decisions for them.

  • Anglo-Irish
  • articles

    The toxicity of debate in this referendum reflects the binary nature of single issue politics be it abortion, gun control, taxation etc. not that we should feel smug in any way, we regularly have scheduled tribal referendums or headcounts. Single issue politics means you don’t have to join up your thinking.

  • Ernekid

    Point of information. The AV voting system on offer was not a proportional representation system.

  • chrisjones2

    My point is this. If you only need 3000 votes in a constituency of say 75000 then that’s just 1 in 25 voters. If you get the support of the flat earthers, work a few Church Groups and keep in with the OO, bingo you have the critical mass to get elected. You simply dont need more.

    If on the other hand there are far fewer MLAs and you have to get a quota of say 7000 you need to appeal to a wider base

  • chrisjones2

    Ah ,,,so it was the wrong type of PR . Next it will be we asked the wrong kind of question. Then the wrong voters

    The answer was absolutely clear. Voters dont want PR. Period. Full stop.

  • chrisjones2

    “The voting system used in the Great Britain part of the UK isn’t fit for purpose ”

    In your opinion but the voters (the bastards) Had the chance to change it and refused – by about 70% to 30%. Pretty decisive

  • terence patrick hewett

    That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates; so carefully, carefully with the plates!

  • chrisjones2

    Presumably with the rise of AI its conceivable that in say 100 years we can delegate all this government nonsense to benign robots who will take all the decisions in our own best interests as a a group.

    Largely as we do for dogs and cats today

  • Anglo-Irish

    Avoidance of answering straightforward questions is a sign of someone who is blathering.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Which people would that be Kev? I suspect that there are rather a lot of them.

    I have great difficulty with the concepts of “the people ” and “the masses” it dehumanises and reduces humanity to a lump of clay which can be molded at will: by of course people like us, who know so much better what is good for the world.

    And once you have dehumanised, any outrage becomes acceptable, since it is after all for the greater good: you cannot make an omlette without breaking eggs: Can you.

  • hgreen

    Wrong again. PR is used in regional assembly elections and the EU elections here in the UK. Don’t hear many complaints. In the AV vote the tories and many labour people campaigned for a variety of reasons against it. The vote also became a proxy election election about Nick Clegg and the lib dems.

    Also a word of advice. Using terms like “period” or “full stop” in an online discussion are embarrassing. I know you might be from a more mature demographic but they are the social equivalents of using air quotes.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Are you really that dim?

    No, it wasn’t the wrong type of PR, it wasn’t PR at all. Can you manage to comprehend that?

    Did you open the link in my last post explaining the differences between the voting systems?

    AV is not a PR voting system, it is a flawed and much less democratic version which was used by politicians to bamboozle the less than informed general public into thinking that they were being offered a viable alternative.

    In fact they were being offered an inferior system which had enough flaws to enable the parties to campaign against it and retain the system which they favour because it’s the one they got elected under.

    Obviously they managed to fool you.

    No great surprise.

  • mickfealty

    I’d be happy with that too, if there was something concrete and processed to decide on. But there’s nothing here that Parliament has done set up or agreed to for the people to decide on/ratify. It literally has been dropped in our laps from the sky, giving the campaigns the latitude to frighten or anger us with ‘whatever you’re having yourself’…

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Chris, we’re already there…….

  • terence patrick hewett

    Oh we are indeed: it is journalism’s dirty little secret that much of the text in the maintream media and newspapers is computer generated: abstracted from data which in itself is…. computer generated.

  • Brian Cairns

    I believe in participatory democracy as to me this is the truest form of people power, though personally I still consider political parties as the source of policies and these “should” under the representative democracy already reflect what is most important for the public as a whole.

    Don’t forget true democracy should also provide a full range of choices and opinions for the general public to consider, rather than create a faceless party who fall to the whims of too many mixed voices.

    A party needs a focus and an ideology to identify with, thereafter we as a people once a majority decides who the winning party are should be able to ensure that the policies are at the heart of all and any actions taken and if needs be if the issues deemed most important continue to be undelivered can play a vital role to ensure focus isn’t lost on the real issues rather than too much agenda politics taking over.

    Again though I do not blame these different forms of democracy each are just as good as the other if the systems in place and the powers allowed them to function as they should.

  • Roger

    How would “the People” pass a budget?
    Would there be referendums every week on matters like whether to increase child benefit or cut tax etc.?

  • hgreen

    A proportionally elected parliament is the truest form of democracy. A referendum isn’t much different from an xfactor phone in vote.

  • Roger

    Chris, in AV the politicians compete in single member constituencies. That’s single member. Not multi member. There is no possibility of proportionality, as there is only ever one victor in a constituency. It’s not proportional representation.

    It’s the electoral system that Ireland uses to elect its president.

  • Brian Cairns

    I don’t agree with the comparison, referendums themselves are perfectly functional, the media and political agendas turns them into the circus we see.

  • The problem isn’t single issue politics, but that we can only vote yes or no. If we had a range of options to rank in a preferendum, then the debates would be less extreme. The range would be from exit, via opt-outs, joining Schengen, the EuroZone to a full united states of Europe in which David Cameron had not more power than the Governor of Texas.

  • kensei

    If you want to fundamentally change the Constitution of the country, then you need to have a referendum. Exiting the EU is definitely that. You can’t bounce in and out of the EU like you can with even nationalising industries.

    Even at the strongest point of the two party system, governments got pluralities and not majorities. As much as politics is decided by those that turn up, that’s a bridge too far.

    I’d much rather have a written constitution and referendums to maintain it than have all the decisions controlled by the elite. This goes a hundred times for the present situation where most of the UK politicians are professional pols from Oxbridge PPE.

    Part of this is class based. There is a lot of people that would rather sideline working class opinion altogether. The argument is pure we know better, and most of the same people would not have been cool with the SNP unilaterally declaring independence after the majority in the Scottish Parliament.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    His motives are certainly intriguing unless it’s just been another response to his limited room for manoeuvre within the party. In any case throwing a black and white issue at the people to let them decide is not the hallmark of a strong leader of a party prone to backbench revolts. Maybe his greatest nightmare was going the way of John Major.

  • Kevin Breslin

    And written in sarcasm.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I think you make a good point about masses vs. people. I am generally a supporter of referendums. I don’t see them polarising people any less than an election simply because the representative doesn’t have a human face elected.

    Cameron has had three referendums in his two tenures as Prime Minister, two to control his government partners and one to put a break on the SNP. As far as I am aware Brown had none but Blair had 3 devolution referendums including the Good Friday Agreement,

    Referendums seem to be the only public consultation Westminster makes about key constitutional change. For a nation that can have its constitution changed simply within the houses, it’s perhaps only the rare referendum that stops the people be dehumanised.

  • Kevin Breslin

    These parties do have the votes, to get a “Westminster majority” here. The issue is that it is too concentrated. In theory a Stalinist resettlement of people from South Down, Newry and Armagh, Foyle, West Belfast etc. to say Upper Bann, Lagan Valley, North Belfast would ensure the majority of MPs come from these parties.

  • Jollyraj

    “Are you really that dim?”

    Now, now…there’s no need to be so cranky every time someone disagrees with you, Anglo.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Three times, by two different people it had been pointed out to him that AV and PR+STV are two completely different things.

    The clue was in the description, AV or PR, two different names for two different methods.

    I have a three year old grandchild that doesn’t require things explaining that many times.

    ” The answer was absolutely clear. Voters don’t want PR. Period, Full stop. ” was his response.

    ” Are you really that dim?” was posed as a question, and in fairness a perfectly legitimate one given the apparent inability to comprehend a simple concept.

  • articles

    Alternatively how about a range of parties offering policies ranging from exit to Eurozone alongside other policies and offering a coherent view of the world.

  • Brian Cairns

    Tone doesn’t come across in the written word.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    For me, a “one community” man, the party system is the historically situated product of late seventeenth century private interests, entirely compromised by the division of one part of the community against another. Neither representation nor party politics are some absolute truth, and all we really require is that the community develops some method of administering its interests as a community. Darwin showed that co-operation was perhaps more important than contest for anything beyond the narcissistic individual. We are all trapped in the trope late Victorian Social Darwinism which sees contest as the only route to development, but I see it as a tremendous waste of social energy. With a fully participatory democracy, the notion of contest and party would diminish in importance, but as long as politics are a serious career choice for specialists, I cannot see any form of participatory activity being more than a sop.

  • Brian Cairns

    I agree with the sentiment, and definitely on the case that as long as the job has the potential to pay out large sums and allow rules to be bent to further allow for extend privilege of power and wealth even when no longer elected.

    Perhaps at some point the polices themselves will be more important than who the parties are, although I still imagine some type of structured leadership would be necessary to help keep an order as well as show accountability to a whole “one community” style system.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I need better sarcasm punctuation than exclamation marks.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you for a fine response, Brian. Pragmatically I agree we will probably need some form of leadership, but would hope that if we are ever able to break the link between power and patronage, this might articulate the community instead of exploiting it5.

    I am always astonished with our general culture of graft that I continue to find decent people acting for the public good in our political life, but yes, sometime they are actually there. The “thousand just men” of the old Hebrew myth and all that!!

  • Brian Cairns

    Indeed it is a shame that good deeds of the few are far outweighed by the corruption of the many.

    As my local MP Mhairi Black said best during her maiden speech (herself quoting another MP from times past) “They are two types of MP’S those who are signposts, steadfast and true and always pointing the way the other, weather vanes that’ll blow in whichever direction the wind takes them. It’s always preferable to be the former and not the later, and those who are will always be best remembered and regarded with the passage of time.”

  • SeaanUiNeill

    So, the people making their own politics decisions directly isen’t “democracy”, but a small body of people monopolising the power to decide “on their behalf” actually is? I’d thought that what you were calling democracy would usually be called oligarchy.

  • Gingray

    Yet Big Ian topped the European Poll time after time, and many of our MPs, with a much wider voting base, are also from the extremes and nutters as you would put it.

  • Cagey Feck

    I’ve been wondering when Seann would start talking ‘direct democracy’ on here, it’s very relevant after all! Seann, as an avowed supporter of direct democracy, please spell a few things out for us.

    How do you see that working? Does your advocacy of that system/aspiration inply that you think that determining a country’s fate isn’t a full time job, given that most people devote next to no time to political considerations?