Far from being a boon, the referendum has damaged democracy in the UK
It would seem the height of logic for amateur democrats to argue that holding a referendum is a good thing to do. Power to the people and all that: let’s go down the Swiss route, and give citizens control of their lives by inviting them to choose their futures. What better way to awaken and energise the electorate than by constantly reminding them what being an electorate actually means?
The logic seems irresistible. Alas, it is bunkum. The experience of the past few weeks show why, contrary to the view of those amateur democrats, referenda can actually be antithetical to democracy. The principal reason for that is that they paralyse the bedfellow of democracy, which is good government.
Imagine if, over the past three months, all the time, courage, energy and passion that David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson had put into the European debate had been spent on just one of the many very pressing challenges before them as senior politicians in modern Britain. Take education for the poor, for instance: nothing is so shameful about this country as the appalling level of of schooling received by the poorest children in our society. That really would be worth the investment these politicians have made. And yet because of their monomania on Europe, and because there are only so many hours in the day, other subjects have been woefully, and totally, neglected.
A less good reason to have fewer referenda is that they can sour the public mood. At times over the past few weeks, our public domain has become a hateful place in a way that has shocked millions. The murder of Jo Cox MP was the most awful evidence of this. It used to be the Leave camp who squealed “I want my country back”, by which they meant they wanted fewer foreigners in their neighbourhoods; more recently, it has been the Remain camp saying it, so shocked are they by the hysteria and poison coursing through the nation’s arteries.
This, however, is not a sufficient warrant to call off the fashion for referenda. Better to improve the quality of debate than censor it in the first place; and, in any case, at times this referendum has provided a decent quality of public argument, conducted in a civilised and intelligent manner. If we called off referenda on the grounds that public debate would be irretrievably coarsened, the same argument could as well apply to elections. It’s the wrong way round. Instead of thinking “Britons are stupid, so don’t let them vote”, our approach should be “Britons are smart, so treat them like grown-ups”.
That said, referenda do tend to inflate the influence of those with extreme views, while diminishing the influence of moderates. It’s understandable, of course, that if you call an election on a specific subject – say electoral reform or Scottish secession – then those who have spent their lives arguing for such causes are elevated from the fringes to the mainstream, where they are generally out of place.
The brutal fact is referenda unleash forces that cannot be controlled and rarely put to bed the issue they were designed to solve. It might be thought that the referendum on the alternative vote system neutralised electoral reform as an issue, but it will be in several party manifestos in 2020. Losing the Scottish referendum was the best thing that ever happened to the SNP. Similarly, a tight Remain vote could be the best thing that ever happened to Ukip.
By paralysing government, boosting extremists and failing to lance our most stubborn political boils, referenda turn out to be enemies of democracy, rather than its allies. Hold fewer.