The Problem With Referendums

Connor McGinn

Before I delve into the murky pit of decisiveness that calls itself the Brexit referendum, I feel I must first preface this argument with the statement that I am no great fan of the European Union. While I, like most sensible liberals, support many of the economic and immigratory  benefits of the Union, the unelected structuring, twinned with the Empire like visage, should leave a bitter taste in the mouth for any true democrat. In spite, however, of the obvious flaws of the European Union, our own exiting from it has highlighted, in bold colours, one lesson we must as a nation learn, the problem with public referendums.

When assessing this type of political decision making, amongst the myriad of flaws, two key issues with the concept of a referendum stand out. The first is the absence of accountability.

In general elections, while of course we vote for policies, we vote for ideologies and we vote for changes, we also, and this is fundamental, vote for people.

Now this is so important because it allows there to be someone, a politician, to be accountable, post election, for the ideas they put out pre-election. This accountability was entirely missing after the referendum.

The referendum was a vote of change, a vote on whether as a nation we remained or left and yet, when the vote went through and leave won, where were the leaders of the campaign? Where were the people who espoused the ideas for leaving, when we actually were about to leave?

A referendum is purely a vote for a decision, not for a leader or candidate

Instead, we were given a Prime minister who had her entire life, supported Britain remaining in the European Union. This was entirely because a referendum is purely a vote for a decision, not for a leader or a candidate, thus when the decision went through, all those that fought for it to do so vanished into thin air.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were allowed to do this, why? Because they had no accountability or duty to the electorate. Referendums are leaderless elections, where the loudest voices can slink away into the shadows the moment the exit polls are announced.

The catastrophe that was the May years acts as stark evidence of the danger of forcing a mandate on a leader who does not believe in it, showing in full truth the detrimental possibilities of an election without candidates.

While an argument against a public referendum should start with the rightful criticism of its human-less nature, it should not end with it. Had, for instance, the leave and remain campaigns each put up candidates, would this solve referendums and thus provide the perfect form of public political decision making? In short, no.

This is because of what referendums pretend issues are. A referendum that allows a vote between two opposing ideas in order to make a decision pretends that such an issue is a matter of yes or no, black and white, when indeed, political matters are nearly always more complicated than that.

The exiting or remaining in/of the European Union cannot not be decided, nor should it, by simply yes or no

I am certainly not trying to argue against democracy or public decision making, for instance I am not trying to espouse Socrates’ ship of state theory. However, I am saying that complicated issues, such as the exiting or remaining in/of the European Union, cannot not be decided, nor should it,  by simply yes or no.

The other issue with the nature of a two choice referendum is that it does not allow for the thousands of different reasons people voted each way, nor does it allow for political subdivisions and thought within each choice. There are many different ways we can or could leave the European Union, was this reflected on the ballot paper?

How do we draw distinctions between those who voted to leave with the intention of a softer, Norway-like-model, with a longer exiting time, and those who wanted to thrust the country gun-ho out of Europe with Rule Britannia playing loudly as we dash our hopes of globalist progress into the channel?

Referendums do not allow for ideas within greater ideas, they do not permit nuances or the acknowledgement that some things in politics have more than two answers

Or what indeed about other forms of leave that exist between what the media coined ‘soft’ and ‘hard’? Who can answer these questions? No one can, and thus lies the issue, referendums do not allow for ideas within greater ideas, they do not permit nuances or the acknowledgement that some things in politics have more than two answers.

Referendums are flawed, we can no longer as a sensible society pretend that any decision, let alone one with the generational ramifications of Brexit, can be answered or solved with a simple two answer question.

So while we may not be able to turn back the clock to 2016 to prevent what happened, I implore my fellow students, as the next generation of this great country, no more referendums please.

Connor McGinn

Featured image courtesy of (Mick Baker) rooster on Flickr. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 
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