On Thursday, 23rd of June 2016, the United Kingdom took part in a referendum to leave the European Union. The population was asked one question, with two possible answers.
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
Such referendums are not common. Since 1973, eleven have been held in the UK. The majority related to devolution of some form.
Margaret Thatcher once quoted Lord Atlee on the subject, who described a referendum as “a device of dictators and demagogues”. Presumably neither would have been enamoured by David Cameron’s decision to allow a referendum on a topic of incredible complexity. The MPs we elect are supposed to be the ones to take time to familiarise themselves with the issues, discuss, debate, and scrutinise the arguments presented by government. They then represent, and act on behalf of, their constituents. A referendum bypasses this procedure. This should give us pause for thought.
Indeed, amongst others David Mitchell wrote a humorous but nonetheless cutting article. He argues how such a matter is surely a matter for Parliament, rather than the average voter (or even comedian), whose knowledge of the EU is surely limited in comparison to the detail the civil service can provide ministers.
This is hardly a new point. In 1774, the MP Edmund Burke spoke in defence of representative democracy (as opposed to elected appointees to be merely delegates):
“But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
But perhaps a referendum can be justified if the issue is too fundamental – self determination would be a good exmaple. We can grant this, perhaps, provided such a matter is handled carefully. Given the normal Parlimentary scrutiny risks being subverted, information would have to be presented in a balanced and objective fashion, with the two alternatives laid out clearly in their meaning and their differences. Anything else would be a disservice to the population.
Here we find the first damning problem with the referendum: the alternatives are not clear. To ‘leave the European Union’ constitutes a whole swathe of possibilities (scroll down for a summary table). Which one was being voted for? We cannot possibly know. To carry out such a referendum with not even a cursory consideration to the possibilities was irresponsible. Our political system is now gridlocked in attempting to discern exactly which type of new relationship we should be seeking with Europe.
This is not the only problem.
Chris Dillow writes how voters are typically blind (or blinded?) to the cost of policies. Immigration could be restricted, or loosened, for example, but that “reasonable people should take either position on immigration with a heavy heart” because there are real costs and benefits associated with position. Such a case is also true with leaving the European Union. There will be costs, and there will be benefits, and such a decision can only be rationally decided by the interrogation of both aspects. In a referendum then, the costs and benefits of the two positions should surely be discussed and debated.
At this hurdle, too, we were failed. Debate collapsed into farce when numbers were thrown, out of context, across the side of a campaign bus (and swiftly removed after the referendum was complete), while Osborne produced economic forecasts that were presumably mangled predictions from civil servants in the Treasury.
David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum was brinkmanship. By tumbling off the edge, we now see how a referendum in itself is deeply corrosive to representative democracy. We discovered how no due care was taken to avoid the problems anticipated hundreds of years ago, with the options being voted on being left unclear. And voters were left frustrated by contradictory claims of fact from senior politicians on opposite sides of the debate – something Gove masterfully played to. This is a long way from the careful consideration of costs and benefits that would be needed to assess the referendum choices properly.
We should be more angry at how we were failed by David Cameron.