Referendums are not the pinnacle of democracy
If the most recent polls are right, the cannabis referendum won’t pass. Some will be pleased with this, others frustrated, but many will just say that it’s the will of the people, democracy in action. But is that right?
However appealing this is to politicians, using referendums this way undermines our tradition of democracy.
We’re talking about referendums a lot these days—they’ve been suggested for cannabis, euthanasia, MMP, even abortion. When it comes to contentious social issues, referendums allow politicians to wash their hands of the issue, avoiding the risk of taking a stand on something that’s bound to alienate a good chunk of voters. But however appealing this is to politicians, using referendums this way undermines our tradition of democracy.
A former UK Supreme Court judge, Lord Jonathan Sumption, has argued that a government only works if people see it as legitimate, and that this is what makes it possible for voters to accept the government’s decisions even when we disagree with them, because we think they’ve been made in a fair way. We’re most likely to think this when the decisions are made by elected, accountable representatives who are acting in “the national interest.” But a referendum doesn’t have these advantages. In fact, Sumption says, referendums set up winner-takes-all outcomes and prevent constructive compromise by putting the decision “in the hands of individual electors who have no reason to consider any opinion but their own.”
So despite the common view that referendums are some kind of concentrated form of democracy, we should reserve them for those very few cases where our political representatives are self-interested and can’t be trusted to decide an issue, like changes to the constitution or the electoral system. Obviously trusting politicians with decisions doesn’t always produce great or popular results, and it’s possible for political elites to get out of step with the public and to fail in their duty to govern in the national interest. But it’s a better system than relying on referendums.
Obviously trusting politicians with decisions doesn’t always produce great or popular results
Requiring our MPs to own the responsibility to make decisions has many advantages. For example, it makes them accountable for their vote, and accountability tends to focus the mind. No-one who votes in a referendum is accountable for the result, and there’s no sanction for being ill-informed or self-interested. MPs also have opportunities to listen to and weigh up evidence that voters never have, with experts beating a path to their door to advise them and a professional public service to support them. Imagine trying to make sure that the millions who vote in a referendum are similarly well-informed.
I don’t say any of this because I’m afraid the cannabis referendum will fail—in fact, I hope it does—and I’ve held this opinion about referendums for years. I say it regardless of the issue, whether it’s smacking, euthanasia, sentences for violent crime, or the number of firefighters. I say it because I believe in the tradition of representative government that has served us well for generations. If we trust it and strengthen it, that tradition will serve us into the future too.