I used to be so enthusiastically in favour of referendums. I admired the Swiss system of semi-direct democracy. I naively thought it could be adopted here in the UK one day. Now I believe that referendums hurt our democracy much more than they help it.
The history books are already judging David Cameron for this. Not everybody realises what an obtuse and hubristic move he made yet. Tory Eurosceptics I've spoken to do tend to acknowledge that it is only because of Cameron that they got the referendum at all. Their lifelong dream of becoming unshackled from what many of them see as a failing, protectionist, Kafkaesque bureaucracy simply would not be on the cards if Cameron hadn't been spooked into holding it. But these so-called 'conservatives' don't seem to understand how profoundly unconstitutional referendums are. Referendums are cheap bypasses. What provisions even exist in our unwritten constitution to make them fair and reasonable, as they are in Switzerland? None. The principle that we have stuck to for centuries is that parliament is sovereign. Our system has been copied across the world because it is the best that works. Huge constitutional matters like this should be fought at general elections, because the government has a responsibility to not only preserve and foster, but to represent civil society.
The purpose of this post isn't to instigate a rematch between Leave and Remain. Quite the opposite - the last thing we need is a second referendum. The first was damaging and divisive enough. A second vote can only do two things - deliver a second slap in the face to those in favour of remaining, mandating politicians to ignore their interests once again, or it can betray the narrow majority of the population who voted to leave in the first. Instead of the innocuously labelled "second vote when we know the terms of the deal", if it were to deliver a narrow mandate for staying in, you would have to be profoundly naive to think that would be the end of it. We would likely have to accept embarrassing conditions for re-entry, such as the loss of our rebate, as the EU would need to use it as an opportunity to humiliate the UK to warn other nations from succeeding from the Union. But that’s only the international part of the equation. What would this do domestically? It would mix up all of the correct ingredients to brew civil unrest, or even political violence.
In a way, the referendum acted as a relief valve. There was a rapidly increasing disconnection in attitudes towards the EU, immigration, national sovereignty and democracy between our elected MPs, and the public. While the public was split roughly 50:50 on leaving or remaining in the EU long term, the vast majority of the Labour Party, the Lib Dems, and around half of the Conservative Party favoured continued membership. The ratio in Parliament and the ratio in the public did not match – it makes sense to argue that when such a disparity opens up between the views of MPs holding their party line and a frustrated public being ignored, it is right to give the decision to the public that gave those MPs a seat in the first place. But you can’t hold that position and support the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, which so many of these Tories claim to. To paraphrase Gustav Mahler, like many of our traditions, parliamentary sovereignty exists not because good conservative government sets out to worship ashes, but because it seeks to preserve fire.
Just as Eurosceptics had been ignored for decades by John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both Remain and Leave voters with totally different ideas about how Brexit should be carried out among themselves are all going to end up disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong. We must leave the EU. As I’ve explained, to renege on the instruction delivered in the early hours of June 24th 2016 would betray the one of the largest political mandates for anything in British history, and lead to untold damage on our democracy and civil society. But let’s learn from this, rather than improving our democracy – referendums usually end up subjecting millions of voters to a result not many want, however they voted, and disenfranchising them further. These sorts of battles should be fought by parties at general elections, where manifesto promises are carried out - not through plebiscites. If any further constitutional reform is to be considered, perhaps there’s a case for switching to a more proportional voting system, so that new parties standing on issues that voters feel unrepresented on can serve as electorally viable challengers to Labour and the Conservatives. Oh wait, that’s not going to be possible any time soon, the referendum on AV killed any chance of a more representative voting system off back in 2011.