17th November 2017


‘Referendums are the result of political parties’ attempts to paper over internal splits.’


Clem Attlee, Labour’s most respected prime minister once dismissed referendums as the “device of demagogues and dictators”, a view he acquired watching the political convulsions which swept Europe in the 1930s. His words were echoed more recently by Margaret Thatcher, whose memoirs record her family’s regard for Attlee’s quiet strengths, so unlike her own.

In 1967 Labour PM Mr Wilson rejected the very idea of a referendum, on the grounds that ‘decisions of great moment of this kind have to be taken by the elected government of the day, responsible to this House. The constitutional position is that whatever this House decides on this matter, or any other matter, is the right decision”

More recently Ms Nicola Sturgeon  on the Brexit referendum-“The absence of any leadership and the lack of any advance planning both from the politicians who proposed the referendum and from those who campaigned a leave vote surely must count as one of the most shameful abdications of responsibility in modern political history,” she said

Perhaps in the case of the Brexit referendum we might turn to Norwegian political scientist Tor Bjørklund. According to Bjørklund, referendums are the result of political parties’ attempts to paper over internal splits.

Analysing Scandinavian referendums in the 1970s, Bjørklund concluded that ‘a government [or party] which is divided on an important issue … may embrace the referendum as a mediating device’ (Bjørklund, T. 1982. The demand for referendum: When does it arise and when does it succeed? Scandinavian Political Studies, 5(3))

If we are to accept the new reality – that the people have spoken and must be heard; that it is us, the citizens of this country, who are the ultimate arbiters, then that means we too need rules and procedures. We need to figure out how we are to organise our new-found power. We need, in other words, a democratic constitution. Because without codification, the abstract idea of popular sovereignty is a path to tyranny. The people must be in charge, but that means we must organize ourselves to ensure minorities are respected, that there are procedures for us to change our minds, and that the information put before us is honest.

The Brexit referendum has brought to the surface two deep political defects.

First, in Britain we are NOT all in it together and not all in the same boat. Britain is a deeply divided society, by class, standard of living, race and ethnicity and by geography and region. Huge divisions have burst into the open and need healing, divisions that the outgoing political order has glossed over but that must now be tackled.

Second, Britain does not have a safe system of political decision-making. The referendum, the way it was called, framed and fought, was a colossal political mistake. By coincidence, the week after the vote, the Chilcot report explained the systemic defects that enabled the previous colossal mistake of the Iraq war. The broken system of decision-making is that of the outgoing political order. This again can no longer be glossed over but needs to be repaired.

The responsibility for the Brexit calamity lies fully and undividedly with David Cameron personally. He is the prime minister whose legacy is a divided and diminished society and a reduced standing of the United Kingdom in the world. Britain is a big power in Europe. With power comes responsibility. In calling the referendum and waging the campaign in narrow terms of self-interest, he abandoned that responsibility.

The referendum should never have been called. There was no issue in the EU to be decided on. There was no prospect for a different deal for Britain in the EU. There was no prospect for settling the European question in the Conservative party. Even a remain majority in the referendum would have been a calamity since it would have emboldened the voice of leave.

Prime ministers must take risks, but to initiate a gamble in which there is nothing to win and everything to lose is madness. This gamble, with no analysis of consequences and no plan, was a colossal mistake. It was a mistake strategically, as we are now seeing. It was a mistake morally and politically since it invited the ugliness of the campaign that we have seen.

Britain is a parliamentary democracy in which the people elect a Parliament to govern in their place. When Parliament is elected and constituted, Parliament is the people and when Parliament makes decisions it is the people that decide. There is no place in British constitutional tradition for referenda. The introduction of this mechanism is one of the many ways in which the British constitution has in recent years been reduced.

There is without doubt a majority in the British people for continued membership in the EU. But because of voting patterns, this majority was not reflected in the referendum. The young are pro-EU, but did not participate in the vote.

The young left it to the old to decide on their future. One of the many tragedies in this calamity. The young of today have grown up in a Europe of cohabitation. They wish to continue that cohabitation. They have now allowed others to deny them the future they have wished for. Brits will now be the children outside the playground looking in. They are to be blamed for that and now they are getting what they deserve, but nevertheless the referendum does not reflect the will of the people.

If Parliament had not abdicated its constitutional responsibility by accepting a referendum to be called, Britain would not be leaving the EU and would have maintained an EU-policy in correspondence with the will of the people. We all, and Parliament in particular, should draw the conclusion that Parliament has the duty to accept its constitutional responsibility, and that it is in our interest, the interest of the people, that Parliament does not shirk away from its duty to govern over us and make important decisions for us.

I am entitled to shout this from the mountaintop since I have been asking since the referendum was called: Why are we having this referendum? How are political decisions made in this country?

NO MORE REFERENDA. It is to be hoped that we draw the learning from this experience that referenda are a bad way of making big political decisions.

Let there be no more moaning about the futility of voting. Let young people draw the lesson that the way forward in a democracy is to do your part and cast your vote. You can participate in various other ways too – manifestations, protests, single issue campaigning – finebut come election time go and cast your vote.

Paul Walmsley, Nwes Business Advisor 

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