What are the arguments for and against referendums?
Many countries have held referendums, mostly for constitutional issues or to agree a change to their constitution. A few have been held on moral issues such as the legalisation of abortion or the prohibition of alcohol. However, Switzerland and Italy allow the public to force a referendum on the collection of enough signatures and Switzerland has held 300 of these. Similarly many states of the United States allow propositions on issues to be put directly to voters at election time. These have ranged from preventing the implementation of Obama’s healthcare, to state budgets, to gay marriage, to banning the hunting of mountain lions.
Referendums can settle an issue that has been controversial. Alex Salmond argued, after the Scottish referendum, that the issue of independence been settled ‘for a generation’ and the 1975 referendum on the EU established British membership as agreed, at least until the last few years. This is not entirely clear though as the uncertainty about the proposals for further devolution in Scotland have revived arguments about independence and the left in the Labour Party revived opposition to the EU when they controlled the party during the 1983 general election. In contrast, the referendum to create a Welsh Assembly gave the institution legitimacy, despite the narrowness of the vote, and time to establish itself so that there was strong support for more powers by the time of the 2011 referendum.
They can be used to decide issues in a way that general election cannot. Voters in general elections decide on broad views of what the parties and their leaders are like and what they will do and have done in the past, rather than on particular issues, the consideration of which can tend to get lost. When parties are divided internally over an issue, as on Europe, they will not want to raise it in a general election campaign. Given that Britain has no written constitution and therefore no legal way of amending the constitution the use of a referendum means that the decision returns to the people as was clearly needed in relation to the decision on Scottish independence.
A referendum leads to a debate which can involve the general public and educate them about the issue. Even complex issues can be simplified and clearly explained. The debate on Scottish independence took place with large numbers of local public meetings, where issues were discussed in depth, as well as through the usual door to door canvassing. It provides a direct way in which people can participate in decisions. In Scotland though the debate did lead to fierce arguments and bitterness which will take time to heal.
Referendums act as a check on Governments and ensure that key changes only take place with popular support. Otherwise decisions are easily taken by ministers, civil servants and the most powerful interest groups. For example, they are all involved in the EU system and may have no interest in questioning it. The public is now much less deferential to those in authority and suspicious of the political class and so want to be able to take decisions for themselves. Referendums could extend beyond constitutional issues to cover policies in a range of areas.
A referendum can increase support for the political system as people become involved in the debate and understanding how institutions work. This would be particularly true for the EU which most people see as remote and difficult to understand. There is no reason why the direct democracy which a referendum introduces cannot exist side by side with representative democracy and provide a means of giving elected representatives what the public view is. In Switzerland, the great majority of decisions are still taken through their system of representative democracy.
Referendums can increase participation at the local level. A variety of these have been introduced, including asking people in large cities whether they want an elected mayor, whether the council tax should increase by more than the Government permits and to approve a neighbourhood plan. These are often easier to organise and debate than at the national level.
Referendums may undermine Parliamentary democracy and make it seem less relevant. It is also contrary to the idea of Parliamentary sovereignty, by which Parliament alone decides the law and no Parliament can bind a succeeding Parliament to a course of action. It could be argued that politicians should be making decisions and that a referendum often leads to delay. Opponents of an in-out referendum on EU membership argue that the possibility of one is creating economic uncertainty and delaying business from taking decisions on investment. Referendums are often called only when the Government wants to avoid party divisions, as with the EU referendum and the 1979 Scottish referendum, or thinks that it will get the result it wants, rather than because they want the public’s view, although the AV referendum, the Welsh Assembly referendum and North-East regional government referendum are examples where the Government was not sure about the result.
Referendums may be about issues that involve complex considerations and these become oversimplified as a result of the need to have a simple question and the campaign may not bring out the complexities. The 1975 EU referendum was about detailed terms that have been negotiated and complicated arguments about the effect of membership by the Government and so would a future referendum, but a referendum can easily become an emotional debate about whether ‘Brussels should tell us what to do’. A referendum on assisted dying, for example, would simplify what is a very complicated topic. There may be more options than just the Yes/No question that a referendum generally asks. Greater devolution could have been one of the options in the Scottish Independence referendum. In some countries, though, different alternatives have been on the ballot paper so it is possible to broaden the question. The exact wording of the question can affect the result.
There may be unequal resources between the opposing campaigns in a referendum so that the arguments of one side become submerged. In the 1975 EU referendum, the party leaderships and business were in favour of remaining in the EU and more resources went into the Yes campaign. In some cases businesses told their workers that their jobs would be under threat if Britain left the EU. The media also has an influence and if the majority of the press take a side in the referendum campaign then the opposing view may not be heard.
Referendums are a majoritarian form of voting and the minorities can lose out in the result. If the turnout is low, as it was in the AV Referendum at 42%, then it does not give a clear reflection of public views. If referendums are extended to other areas than constitutional issues and become more frequent then less people may not vote, as has happened in Switzerland where turnout has been falling.
There are no clear criteria as to when a referendum should be held. Some constitutional issues have been put to the voters but not others. Referendums on EU issues have been promised by the party leaders because of electoral and party considerations rather than because these are clearly the main issues that the public should decide upon. If referendums become much more frequent and cover other areas then they may lead to paralysis of Government. In California so many financial provisions have been vetoed in referenda that the state has a constant budget crisis because it cannot raise enough in taxes. Also a national referendum cost about £120m and so frequent referendums would be very expensive.
It is not always clear what the implication of the result is. The 2011 AV referendum was partly a vote of no confidence in Nick Clegg as much as a clear expression as to whether voters wanted the electoral system changed. Referendums just after a Government has won a large majority can become a vote of confidence in that Government, as happened over the Welsh Assembly referendum, and if they take place when a Government is unpopular can be used to punish that Government in the same that mid-term by-elections do.