I wrote this piece last night in the expectation of a narrow win for "Remain." I post it as written then to show that the case against referendums is not one of sour grapes, but applies even if what I think of as the" right side" had won. Post result comments are in italics.
Whew, saved by a whisker. Sadly the reverse
The major lesson to be learned from this squalid campaign is that never again should an important issue be subject to a referendum.
As Geoffrey Wheatcroft reminds us, when Churchill wanted to prolong the life of the wartime parliament by referendum, his deputy, Clement Attlee, squashed the idea. "I could not, he said, " consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to our traditions as a referendum."
Quite right too.
The case against referendums has been clearly borne out by this campaign.
- It is difficult to compose a neutral question. A "Yes/No" question tends to get answers biassed towards "Yes." In this campaign the "Outers" got the best option, with "Leave," which sounds rather more dynamic and decisive than the more staid "Remain." However, we Remainers had the benefit of being first on the ballot paper, an advantageous position.
- Most issues are not susceptible to just too options. In this case there were a range of options. Do we wish to stay in with full access to the market, reduced access, or no access at all? There are many more permutations.
- It is difficult to decide which bodies should officially lead each side, or the various options. "Leave" had a serious problem with this, and attempted to exclude the main progenitor of the exercise - a ridiculous position.
- It is difficult to guarantee equal funding for the arguments. The £9m of public money used to argue the government's case was hotly disputed.
- And it is certainly difficult to guarantee fair coverage from the media. Much of the press was biassed by reason of the whims of their proprietors rather than the evidence, and the BBC fell into the trap of given "equal coverage" to both sides of the case, however slender was the evidence to support one or other of the views (see earlier post, point B)
- There is no effective legal method of challenging downright lies, which can be persisted in ad nauseam.
- The reason for resorting to a referendum is usually cowardice by a government afraid to take the responsibility for a decision, or, as in this case (and the 1975 referendum on the same topic) to resolve divisions within a party (though in 1975 it was the Labour Party.)
- Voters tend to vote on something other than the question on the ballot paper - normally to give a kick in the teeth to the government (French and Irish rejections of the Lisbon Treaty). In this case a significant proportion of the "Leave" vote was undoubtedly a gesture against immigration. Some of the "Remain" vote could be a sympathy vote in reaction to the death of Jo Cox
- Referendums do not settle things "once and for all." It would be nice to think that Farage, Johnson et al would fade into obscurity, but the cancer will go on, nurtured by them or their successors, unless and until we scrap the use of referendums in Britain. I suppose Farage might now fade away, but Johnson could be raised to even greater glory.
- (Added 11th July, to make it a round number). Whatever the "Leave" campaign, and the much misled "Leave voters," might like to think about it, the much cited "sovereignty" which we have regained resides legally not with "the people" but with "the Crown in Parliament." Hence it would be perfectly legal, and fully constitutional, for parliament to ignore the referendum verdict and fail to activate Article 50 which would trigger the leaving process. In other words, any referendum in Britain is purely advisory. Since this was not stated at all before or during this referendum campaign, -indeed the reverse: Cameron repeatedly stressed that there would be no going back in the event of a majority for "Leave," - those who voted for leaving would with justification regard it as a betrayal if parliament were to take, or rather fail to take, this action now.
We are a representative democracy. The answer is to improve the quality and range of representation by making the system more democratic. Our present electoral system has given an over-all majority to a party supported by barely a quarter of those entitled to vote. The representatives are selected by the parties rather than the people, and only in a minority of marginal constituencies do the people have any real choice.
Proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-menber constituencies is the best method of guaranteeing representatives of the quality and with the range of views to make decisions on our behalf, which is what we elect them, and pay them, to do.
And if they don't make the decisions we like, we can get rid of them - an option of which "Leave" are very keen, but which is almost impossible in the 80% of single member constituencies which are presently "safe seats."