Published on June 20, 2016

The real reasons referenda are so common – and so scary

People & participation

By Harry Farmer

Harry Farmer is a policy researcher at Involve. He is fascinated by the power of deliberative processes to enable governments to negotiate controversial policy decisions - particularly those presented by emerging technologies and demographic change. He currently works primarily on the Citizens for Public Service programme.

As the EU referendum looms closer, and the level of anxiety about the potential result mounts, many people’s exasperation has shifted from the debate itself to the very fact we are having it.

Taking Brexit as its centerpiece, a recent article in the Economist bemoaned the increasing frequency of referenda in Europe, complaining that they make it harder to set transnational agreements, lead to incoherent policies, jeopardize the rights of minorities and often fail to make for better engagement with politics.

Commenting more directly on the EU referendum, Richard Dawkins recently described as an outrage the fact that people ‘as ignorant as [him]’ are being asked to vote on such a complex and important matter, and pointed out that we live in a representative democracy, not a plebiscitary one.

Leaving aside some of the more practical grievances, there seem to be two related ideas underpinning these kinds of complaints. One is that governments should have the self-assurance to govern in their country’s best interests, rather than delegating hard questions to the electorate. The other is that there are some questions that are simply too important and complex to be left up to the public.

While it’s easy to sympathize with these ideas, you don’t have to subject them to too much pressure to see that they apply more widely than to referenda, and that they take you in a worryingly paternalistic direction. But for exactly that reason, it’s interesting to consider what it is that tempts (presumably) otherwise committed democrats to espouse them. When you scratch beneath the surface, it becomes clear that these anxieties about referenda are really expressions of deeper (more implicit) worries about 21st century democracy.

It’s similarly interesting to ask why referendums are becoming more common. Rather than blaming the phenomenon on a crisis of weak leadership, considering why governments are finding referenda an increasingly appealing means of settling tough questions draws attention to a problem that our political system needs to address.

Once we see referenda, and our anxiety about them, as consequence of, rather than a cause of, the flaws in our political system, we’re in a much better position to do something about it.

With this in mind, I have written two further blogs briefly exploring these questions. The first, Political counter narratives and the rise of referenda, looks at how our political system is struggling to deal with the emergence of new political narratives, and how referenda offer a stopgap solution to this problem.

The second blog, What our worries about referenda say about the state of democracy, asks why we find the prospect of asking the public to vote on important questions so scary, and suggests that most of the reasons have little to do with referenda themselves, and more to do with deeper worries we have about the state of our democracy.

Image credit: OpenClipartVectors

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