Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Referendums are a waste of time

There was a very interesting article in the Times today regarding the French "non" campaign in the referendum on the EU Constitution. In essence, its main point was that the Left are organising the non campaign, and gaining success, because they fear it will enforce the Anglo-Saxon economic model on France, and possibly even endanger many of their public services. In short, the complete opposite to the no campaign in Britain.

This demonstrates one of the major problems with referendums. By shoehorning important issues into simple "yes" or "no" options, it forces disparate people to stand together on the same platform, often in cases where a broader discussion would be much more helpful to the issue at hand. Let us look case by case at a few past referendum campaigns and see what groups may be forced into the same position:

Welsh/Scottish Parliament: The "No" campaign can quite easily encompass people who believe in total formal independence as well as those who believe that there is no need for an assembly. Even these can fall into different categories; some may prefer to see more power given to county councils; others may not wish to see any further devolution of powers.

North-East Assembly referendum: I was in a strange position here; I voted yes, but did not like the proposal of the assembly as it stood; I just believed an assembly was better than none. Other people may have had similar queries regarding their vote - for example, they may have been against the idea of an assembly, but disliked the fact that a "no" vote prevented the question from being asked for another seven years.

Australian republic: Perhaps the clearest cut case here. A specific plan for a republic was put forward; one which most people did not agree with. Yet there was widespread clamour and support for abolition of the monarchy. The disagreement came in what to replace it with. The referendum may have been reflective of public opinion on the specific question, but in terms of the broader feeling of a desire for constitutional change, it was not.

I have complained elsewhere on this blog that an adversarial style of politics often shoehorns debate. A parliamentary democracy is infinitely preferable to direct democracy in one key respect, however - it allows much greater chance for debate and does not require that a policy be accepted or rejected in toto. Even the most hair-brained plans may have a kernel of truth within them. Far better that we discover the kernel of truth through informed debate and fashion it into proper legislation than force people into entrenched positions, shady alliances, and grandstanding in place of debate.

For whilst referendums have the appeal of popular participation and the impression of more detailed debate, their effect is more invidious. They suggest that there is a simple yes or no solution to political questions. They see things in terms of black and white rather than in the subtle shades of grey demanded of an effective polity. If we want to raise the standard of political debate in this country, we need fewer, not more, referendums.