There is a big difference between a referendum set by a government and one demanded by the people. The first, is usually to dig the government our of a hole or to benefit themselves as opposed to the people they serve. The second, has the people going over the heads of the government to get a decision to an issue that the government is failing to address.
The other day my attention was drawn to a paper on holding referendums produced in 2020 by ‘The European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission)’. This was a revised version of an earlier paper produced in 2006.
Although containing nothing one would not expect in a document associated with any Western democracy, its benefit is that it does set down what are ‘good practices’ for holding a referendum. Thus, it provides a good measure from which the public can gauge whether any referendum has been fair and of course provides the basis for any legal challenge if the standards set out have not been met.
THA’s fourth demand ‘The People’s Consent’ lays out three possible uses for referenda which the people can use. The reason these powers don’t exist now is because our governments, who may ‘talk a good talk’ about democracy are actually more inclined to the principles of ‘Epistocracy’. In simple language this means that our political master know best what is good for us and the last thing they want is for us to hold and exert too much power.
All governments have to hold periodic elections but after campaigns, usually built on exaggeration and far too often actual promises they cannot keep, or lies, they then pay lip service to our views and desires once they have won. Nothing displays the governments contempt for our views more that the elections this month of various Mayors around the country a position overwhelmingly rejected by the people when asked in a referenda if they wanted one. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_English_mayoral_referendums . This affront to our democracy is that much worse because these positions are constitutional changes and to impose them on us without consent is completely unacceptable.
The other day on Dr North’s blog ‘Turbulent Times’ I was debating the issue of the people’s input into policy areas, under a sub-thread about rights or wrongs about giving 16 year-olds the vote, and the point was made, by another commentator, that issues are often too complex for the public to be able to give an informed opinion.
This is a view with which I fundamentally disagree as I believe, on all the basic policy issues that governments deal with, the views of the people are every bit as valid as those of politicians or indeed experts. This is not to say that the people would be able to answer for all the detail behind a piece of legislation but that is why we elect governments. However, I cannot think of any general policy issue involving any of the Departments of State where the public’s views would not be valid.
Our referendum on our membership of the EU is a case in point. The question was simply whether we wanted to stay or leave the EU and on that the public’s view is as valid as anyone else’s. However, what sort of trade deal we then expected to have with the EU 27, after we had left, would clearly be a decision the people would expect the government of the day to negotiate. This is largely the reason why Johnson has broken the ‘Red Wall’, despite being a lair, lazy, incompetent and corrupt, because he said he would ‘Get Brexit Done’ and he did. That the TCA he is responsible for will adversely impact on trade for years to come has yet to register with the voters and thus as yet harm the PM.
In conclusion, a key point about giving more power to the people, by restoring their inherent sovereignty, is that they will have to face the consequences of their decisions. At the moment our politicians make endless decisions, often bad and ill-thought-out or designed to benefit themselves, and seldom if ever have to suffer the consequences of their incompetence.
In 1997 the Referendum Party slogan was “Let the People Decide” and that was as apt then as it is now on all government’s policy issues that impact on our lives.