It feels like there has been a spike in the number of referenda worldwide in the past few years. In the UK alone, the 2011 AV referendum seemed to start a trend that saw votes on Scottish Independence and our relationship with the EU decided by plebiscite in just 5 years. There have also been referenda across the world, most recently the Catalonian independence referendum, marred by the shocking actions of the Spanish central government. This all brings to light to the question of whether we should value plebiscites. I believe that if you’re going to have a referendum, do it the British way. That is to say, keep it constitutional.
Since 1973, there have been 12 referenda held in the UK and all have been on strictly constitutional matters. This means that every time parliamentary sovereignty has been suspended and handed straight to the people, it is on an issue which concerns matters of how we are governed, thus affecting every individual. This takes the power out of the hands of a party with a heavy interest in which way it goes – i.e. the body whose power is being modified, challenged or moved. This seems appropriate. It’s right that the people of Northern Ireland got to approve the Good Friday Agreement themselves, instead of having a load of non-Irish MPs vote on it; and it’s a good thing that everyone in the country got to decide on our nation’s relationship with the EU, being an issue that will affect every single person in the country that seriously challenges the way the establishment currently works.
The common objection to referenda on such matters is that the electorate doesn’t have the expertise to make the ‘right’ decision. This underestimates the ability and intelligence of people in a way that we’re not normally prone to doing. We let people elect their government. We also let them make far more important decisions required to carve out a decent life for themselves and their families on a daily basis. So why shouldn’t we trust them to pick between two options that have been laid out for them on a regional or national basis? After all, it’s their lives that will be affected. Constitutional matters ultimately come down to key principles of governance and we should trust the population over a select number of people with a vested interest in the status quo to make the right choice for themselves. This isn’t to suggest that all MPs are scheming Machiavellians who only care about their pay and power – it is rather to point out a very real inclination against change that is present in most people. Where such constitutional matters affect us all, they affect those in power the most and cause a lot of upheaval and uncertainty. Left to parliament there is a real possibility that decisions of this kind will always go to the status quo they know, robbing us of a real choice for real change. We respect the sovereignty of parliament only because it is a means to sovereignty of the people over themselves, which is what referenda provide. Arguments against referenda that appeal to the sovereignty of parliament fail to understand this and put more trust and power in parliament than was ever or should ever be intended.
However, referenda shouldn’t go further than constitutional matters. Decisions which don’t affect everyone, such as gay marriage or the death penalty, should be left to parliament. Referenda on these issues give unnecessary power to people over the lives of others. It’s not up to me to decide who someone else should be able to marry, so why should I get to have a direct vote on it? With too many referenda on fundamental issues such as these, a persistent minority may arise. The ideal government ensures equal rights and non-infringement on the individual, and if not it pushes through reforms to this end. Of course, it’s not ideal that an MP would even get to decide on the fundamental rights of others, but if it is made necessary in order to change archaic and authoritarian laws, a vote in parliament seems less vulnerable to emboldened bigots than a referendum. Many progressive reforms have been successfully gained through parliament where they might have failed had they gone to the country. We can trust our representatives on these matters as they don’t have a vested interest.
This position does not entail abstaining or protesting when a referendum is called and if referendum is the most likely method of achieving progressive reforms, then bring it on. This has been the case in Ireland as they legalised gay marriage via referendum. When this happens, we must follow the Irish example and fight for the right side. If the government goes to the people, let’s not balls it up, but instead choose the best representatives possible in the first place. If the parliament can get it done, why give my next door neighbour the right to decide who gets to marry and who doesn’t?