Referendums have no place in democracy

By: Calum Henderson, Student Voices writer






When a British comedian seeks to make a lazy joke about one of our neighbours, Germany is an easy target. So vivid is the memory of Winston Churchill and Our Finest Hour that even youngsters know the story of Britain’s battle with fascism, when we fought a ranting despot with a silly moustache who nonetheless sent millions of people to their deaths. John Cleese even mocked Hitler’s silly walk in an episode of Fawlty Towers, when his famously grouchy hotel manager character taunted German guests with his impression of the Fuhrer.

But if there is any kind of joke in making fun of Germany’s past, it is on us. The truth is the country has come on leaps and bounds since 1945, a lot more than the British like to admit. Back in 1990, Margaret Thatcher was privately worried that a unified Germany would be a serious economic challenger to Britain. It wasn’t the only time she was right. Politically, they are even further ahead. In Berlin you will find nothing as preposterous as unelected second chambers, replete with ageing aristocrats and establishment cronies, or ‘royal’ families which credulous taxpayers keep in business. Some of us still sneer at the Germans. Others realise we could learn from them.

This is especially true with referendums. Germans have been wary of them ever since Hitler used the pretence of democracy to dragoon the many countries he invaded into accepting him as their Fuhrer. Today they hold plebiscites at federal level, but have not had a national one in many years. Perhaps this suggests they are a more peaceful nation than our own, untroubled by their EU membership and without restless regions looking to become independent. Yet perhaps in the ruins of the dictatorship they built a democracy better than our own.

Referendums are tools of the state used in order to coerce the electorate into supporting a particular cause. Nowadays, they don’t rig them like they did in Hitler’s day, but if the state doesn’t get its way it will simply try, try, try again. No one is proposing a re-run of Ireland’s vote on gay marriage, because it went the right way, i.e. the way the government wanted it to go. The 2014 referendum on Scottish independence did not go the way the administration in Edinburgh wanted it to go, hence Nicola Sturgeon’s continual hints of a second vote in the near future. Her euphemistic language – dubious suggestions that it will be ‘up to the people’ when the next vote is held – fool very few. If there is to be a next referendum on Scottish independence it will be held when, and only when, Sturgeon thinks she can win. Thus, as one of her critics said, the country’s future may be decided by some arbitrary opinion polls that catch the First Minister’s eye. No way to run a country, but then you can’t blame her for wanting to read the small print. No one has more to lose than Sturgeon if the vote goes the ‘wrong’ way once again. It was only after they rejected independence for the second time that the people of Quebec realised they’d have to change the government in order to stop being pestered.

The next referendum this country is being put through is on our membership of the European Union. The parliament in Brussels has form of its own when it comes to brow-beating member states through the guise of democracy. Leave and Remain voters alike should pay to have Daniel Hannan’s book Why Vote Leave delivered to their Kindles. The chapters on the EU’s questionable democratic credentials are especially illuminating. When Denmark rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, they were made to vote again. Both France and the Netherland’s repudiation of the EU constitution in 2005 was promptly ignored. More recently, when Greece rejected the European bailout plan last year, their decision was also disregarded. And so on.

Of course, the Prime Minister is not giving you a choice on the EU because he believes we should address these concerns. Tackling problems is not in his nature; he is a conservative in every sense of the word. A steady as we go, business as usual figure of the type voters in the 1930s and 70s were also familiar with. He is a man for whom the phrase ‘status-quo’ was made. No, he proposed the vote to keep his party together at the last election, and to tame the power of the UKIP vote, which in any case did more damage to Ed Miliband’s Labour. Many senior Tories advocate we remain, and if we do the government will have won and the status quo can continue. However, unlike the SNP the Tories are divided on the issue that they are putting to a referendum, divisions that may fell the Prime Minister even if he gets the result he wants. As some have pointed out, we could end up with a Leave-voting Prime Minister right after having voted to remain. Yet even if we stay in Europe and Cameron stays in Downing Street, I will be sitting with my stopwatch on 23 June to see how long it is until someone on the Leave side cries foul. After the vote in Scotland, it took the First Minister and the time two whole days to claim that the referendum he had been demanding all his life could just be ignored.

With Scotland, a highly complex and multifaceted issue was to be settled with a simplistic yes/no answer. If you were a unionist who wanted us to join the Euro, or a nationalist who thought Trident should be kept, you were stuffed. The vote demanded that you pick a side and get in line, and suppress all your views that don’t conform. But hey, that’s politics isn’t it? Wrong. Politics is the art of careful negotiation and piecemeal change, the implementing of amendments and re-writing of footnotes – not throwing everything up in the air because of a single decision made in a moment of national fervour. In an ideal democracy we’d have referendums on all the issues that came up during the Scottish vote, but we don’t live in an ideal democracy. Instead, most of our voters who can’t name their MPs, while as the Greeks wisely realised, when our politicians get into power they act just as selfishly and ignobly as we would.


In short, our childish and petulant leaders cannot be trusted with referendums, the tool only grown-up democracies are allowed to play with. Throwing the result back at the voters and demanding they think again is not democracy, but authoritarianism through the ballot box. The European debate so far has been bad tempered and ill informed. The vote in the summer will not peacefully conclude the campaign, no more than the Scottish vote settled the issue of independence. Don’t believe me? Be ready with your stopwatches on 24 June. 
Referendums have no place in democracy Referendums have no place in democracy Reviewed by Unknown on 23:04 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. While most of your points here against the way referendums are used are valid, you fail to acknowledge that referendums are crucial and popular in many cases. What you're really arguing against is the way they are used as political tools, rather than referendums in general. The Scottish referendum didn't settle the problem entirely - it was never going to. But it gave legitimacy to the 'No' to independence side and despite, as you say, Sturgeon and the SNP pushing for another referendum, that isn't going to be accepted by the rest of the UK and certainly not by the government.

    To write of referendums completely because of the way they are used in some cases is wrong. Referendums can be a crucial part of our politics. In a political system dominated by representative politics, direct democracy is a crucial way of keeping the electorate engaged and allowing them to have their own voice.

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