Published on June 20, 2016

What our worries about referenda say about the state of democracy

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.

With the EU referendum drawing ever closer, I’ve been considering why it is that putting difficult policy questions out to public vote has recently become so popular, and why so many of us feel so uneasy about the idea. I’ve discussed the first question in a previous blog post, and now turn to the second:

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.

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.

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.

While referenda are an imperfect means of dealing with this new political divide, criticisms of them often say more about our anxieties about 21st century democracy than about referenda specifically.

Dawkins’ response, is particularly revealing. When you cut through the context, the worry doesn’t seem to be about referenda at all. Instead, it’s indicative of a deeper seated skepticism about the power of modern democratic processes to produce good decisions.

This becomes clear when you consider why Dawkins thinks that his political ignorance is problematic in the case of the EU referendum, but not in other cases. If Dawkins is not qualified to make a decision about a specific, important policy, then presumably he is equally unqualified to make a decision about the numerous policies at stake when voting in a general election. Likewise, in terms of a tendency towards superficial, poorly informed debate, the referendum campaign is no different to any general election campaign.

Given this, the most plausible reason that figures like Dawkins are willing to tolerate poor quality discourse in elections but not in the EU referendum is that, deep down, they don’t believe elections make a serious, irreversible difference to people’s lives.

This prevalence of this thought, that some things are too important to be determined by democratic processes, should be deeply unsettling to those committed to democracy. But it is also a fairly conservative, fatalistic response to democracy’s failings, premised on the idea that the only options are for public power be severely limited or dangerously out of control.

Rather than resigning ourselves to either one of these options, it is possible to take steps to improve the quality of public debate, and the means by which public opinion is translated into policy decisions. Political education, allowing people to conceive of the theoretical underpinnings of policies and parties, and better understand the workings on the political system, would do a huge amount to improve the quality of public debate. Likewise, more participatory approaches to democracy, such as deliberative engagement, offer a means for the public to influence policy in an informed, considered manner.

For various practical reasons, referenda are not a good long term solution to the pressures felt by Western politicians. But rather than dismissing them as the products of weak leadership, it is important to see that they are playing a role in an imperfect system, and will continue to do so until a better mechanism is found. At the same time, instead of seeing them as inherently dangerous, we need to think hard about why the prospect of trusting the public to decide important questions scares us so much, and what needs to change for it to be less frightening.

Image credit: ClkerFreeVectorImages

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