Was It Right to Hold the EU Referendum?
Over the next few days there will be literally thousands of articles analysing why Britain voted to leave the European Union. There is nothing I could say which would meaningfully add to this debate so instead I would like to ask a different question, ‘was it right to hold the EU referendum in the first place’? After all, the whole point of electing MPs is so that they can take these kinds of decisions for us, no? Why should our membership of the EU be any different? Come to think of it, why should any question be put to a referendum?
Let’s start with a premise that I think everyone would accept, the idea that when it comes to making collective decisions, every citizen should have an equal say. In a democracy we encapsulate this idea in the phrase ‘one man, one vote.’ I don’t think anyone is going to realistically suggest that, say, people who haven’t been to university shouldn’t get a vote (although yesterday I did notice some Remainers making saying this about the elderly!)
When we elect a representative, we are effectively giving that man or woman the power to wield our vote on our behalf. Now, because constituencies are all roughly the same size, for convenience, MPs don’t actually cast 75,000 votes, one for each of their constituents, they just have one vote each, but the principle remains the same.
The question is, why do we vest our MPs with this power? I submit there are two reasons. First, because it would be completely impracticable for every citizen to vote on every single measure that comes before Parliament. And secondly, because often we lack the understanding, either due to time constraints or the complexity of the subject matter, to make an informed decision. It follows that in a circumstance where neither of these reasons apply, the voting power should revert back to the people who gave it to their MPs in the first place.
The issue of practicality is primarily one of cost and time, but that doesn’t prohibit the possibility of consulting the people on at least a few occasions each year. Essentially therefore it comes down a question of priorities, which pieces of legislation do we really care about and want to be asked about directly, and which are we content to let our representatives decide. This could easily be assessed by ballot initiative, a la Switzerland.
The issue of understanding is more difficult. Who is to decide when the general public lacks sufficient understanding? It can’t be the MPs themselves, because they will be tempted to say everything is too complex, and an independent body would inevitably reflect the prejudices of its individual members. In truth I don’t think anyone is in a position to make this kind of judgement, so, again, I think our only option is to let the electorate themselves decide. Hopefully, we will have the self-awareness to recognise when our understanding is insufficient, and if we don’t, at least we will bear the responsibility for our own mistakes.
Parliament does have a quasi-ballot initiative system via its ‘petitions’ website, but the most you can achieve is a promise that the Speaker will consider the question for a debate. However, even without a proper ballot initiative system, surgeries and correspondence should mean that it is possible for MPs to identify when there is a particular issue which the public demands to be consulted on.
So to return to our initial question, ‘was it right to hold the EU referendum?’, it depends whether you think the public was calling out for such referendum or not. Most commentators agree that David Cameron’s primary motivation for offering us this decision was to kill off the UKIP surge, which isn’t quite the same, but equally, the record turnout on the day does imply that the question really mattered to a lot of people. On balance, I think Mr Cameron was probably justified in his decision.
There are two more situations where I think it is necessary to consult the public. First, when we are deciding how our representatives are selected, and second, when we are deciding what powers those representatives have. If representatives were allowed to make these decisions themselves it would create an obvious conflict of interest. For example, MPs might choose an electoral system which ensures that they (or people like them) always end up in charge, regardless of the votes cast. In fact, you could say we already have such a system in First-Past-the-Post, which is why the 2011 AV referendum was so important.
I would argue that the EU referendum could be justified on both of these grounds. First, we were deciding how our representatives should be selected. The Leave campaign argued that our representatives should only include those people who have been chosen by general election. The Remain campaign endorsed the current system whereby, in addition to these domestic representatives, we also have MEPs, Council members, and Commissioners selected through a variety of other methods. Secondly, putting this first question to one side, we were asked what powers those representatives should have. The Leave campaign argued that our EU representatives should have none (or in the case of the EEA-option, less), whereas the Remain campaign endorsed the status quo (although I am sure, if asked, many of them would support a change in the balance of power between the different types of representative).
To summarise, I think the EU referendum was justified both as a response to popular demand and because of the constitutional nature of the question. Why does this matter? Because we are going to have to decide whether to hold referenda in the future, and it is important to have some clear, rationally selected rules to help us make that decision. In future, I can imagine popular demand being used to justify referenda on: assisted suicide, private schools, foreign aid, and much much more. Constitutional questions might include: Scottish independence (again), House of Lords reform, and the abolition of the monarchy (god forbid!). Ideally therefore, this won’t be our last dalliance with direct democracy.
25th June 2016