Referenda: Are They Counter-Productive?

Looking at the newspapers I am amazed at how bitter the debate has become over Brexit in the United Kingdom. Then I saw a video clip of Alastair Campbell and Nigel Farage debating whether the Brexit decision can be reversed or not. It was a shouting match which was indicative of the damage that the Brexit result has brought: two sides which have no intention of giving an inch to the other. Also, last results of an opinion poll show that immigration still remains number 1 for the majority of people who voted to leave. Today, the United Kingdom is a bitterly divided country as that fateful Referendum result shows, so a legitimate question arises, “Is a referendum the best way of deciding major political questions?” I think it isn’t.

Plebiscites, in my opinion, should only be used to insert or remove a constitutional clause and they should never be used for political questions, because of the need to protect the minority. Likewise, the sands of time shift, as we can see with the Brexit vote. A report from PACAC (Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee) this week showed two things: it appears that the number of voters who voted to ‘leave’ has decreased by 3% and the ‘remain’ vote has increased 1%, and secondly there is fear that foreign interference was the cause of the collapse of the voting website system shortly before the referendum vote. A million people had applied to vote on line but we don’t know what happened to these potential voters. Indeed, a plebiscite cannot accommodate the shifting sands of politics and can only lead to long term conflict, persistent criticism, and opposition.

In the case of Brexit, 48.1% of the U.K. voted to ‘remain’ while 51.9% voted to ‘leave’. But behind these overall numbers for the United Kingdom we find that Scotland voted 38.0% to ‘leave’ while 62% voted to ‘remain’. The great majority in Northern Ireland also voted to ‘remain’. So is a referendum the best way to come to a decision on such a vexed issue as membership of the European Union? Or have politicians taken the cowardly way out of a divisive political problem within the Conservative Party by calling the referendum?

The Brexit referendum that took place in the United Kingdom (UK) on 23rd of June 2016 was a single question asking respondents to choose one of two possible options, namely, whether the UK should ‘remain’ in or ‘leave’, the European Union (EU). My conclusion is the overall UK result of 52%-48% split does not represent any substantial, material or practical significant difference in relation to the 50%-50% split (the even split). It, in fact, is divisive because the ‘remain’ results in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the London area are contrary to the overall English result.

If a referendum has to be called on a constitutional issue, a clearer and more realistic 60%-40% must be set in law with an electorate turnout of at least 60% in a situation where there is no conflict between the regions. The Saarland referendum, for example, in 1955 resulted in 68% to unite with Germany and 32% against. This result ensured a clear majority with a good turnout.

Brexit referendum

The 52%-48% only brings division and the dictatorship of a small majority over a divided country. As one writer wrote, “Democracy means ‘rule by the people’. It does not mean ‘dictatorship of a small majority’.”

This conflict of confusion of interests is demonstrated well in the case of the Northern Irish (NI) vote where some Unionist voters appeared to have voted for the Union with Great Britain, rather than to ‘leave’ the EU. Despite this confusion with the Unionists the majority in NI still voted to ‘remain’. Indeed, the referendum serves up a dish of resentment and confusion for many in both Scotland and Northern Ireland against dominance of the English vote which was 53.4% to ‘leave’ and 44.6% to ‘remain’ (as opposed to the overall U.K. vote).

In Gibraltar, another conflictive area, only 4.1% voted to ‘leave’, and 95.9% voted to ‘remain’. Even if the English vote is broken down, we will find conflict between the London area and the rest of the country. So division and disagreement exists all round, which brings up the question as to whether or not a referendum is the right way to decide on tricky national political issues such as this one.

Group psychology tells how easy it is to swell up the emotional heat once a defined enemy is recognised. In this case, the enemy was Brussels. History has shown us that Nationalism is the one topic where emotions are contagious and rationalism gives way to this rising emotional tide. The Brexit campaign certainly lived up to this expectation. Nobody now wants to discuss the lies that were told to the electorate by the Brexiteers in order to stir up these emotions. The referendum was hardly over when Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader and chief Brexiteer, resigned and departed the political landscape. So much for responsibility!

Plebiscites give enormous power to the media, in my opinion, and allow celebrities to join in to persuade the impressionable.  The ordinary people neither have the information nor the skills to make a wise decision on complicated issues. It becomes the weight of numbers against argument. It brings to mind what De Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill pointed out, that ‘plebiscites can lead to a tyranny of the majority’, as the winner takes all, even if they win by only by one or two percent. There is a much greater opportunity to protect minority rights by relying on normal parliamentary procedures than by plebiscite.

One thought on “Referenda: Are They Counter-Productive?

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