Thursday, 13 October 2016

Don’t call for another referendum – they cause more problems than they solve

Amol Rajan in The Independent

Many journalists ply their trade because it is politics by other means. I joined this profession for several reasons, including the need to make a living and the absence of suitable alternatives. But one of the main reasons was that I believe very strongly in democracy – a political idea – because it is a way of diffusing power so that it is not just concentrated among the rich and the few.

As a democrat, even a radical democrat, for years I harboured an instinctive fondness for referendums. Give the people a say. Let them decide. All that stuff. But judging by the experience of Britain's most recent referendum, I have changed my mind. I now think fewer would be preferable.

This is not necessarily because I think the wrong result transpired. Rather it is because I can see the problems with referendums more clearly now. I reckon there are at least four.

First, they too often turn on variables unrelated to the question at hand, such as whether a particular leader is popular that month. Colombia's rejection of a peace deal may have turned on the weather. 

Second, they give excessive influence and airtime to single-issue campaigners and fringe groups who don't belong in, or represent, the mainstream.

Third, they reduce very complex issues to binary decisions, ignoring the fact that politics is full of trade-offs; leaving the European Union, for instance, can mean many different things.

Here's just such a trade-off: you can lower immigration levels, but you'll be poorer in the short-term as you probably have to leave the single market. It's what people voted for – even if they didn't realise it. But now there's a huge move in parliament to pretend this trade-off didn't happen. You see it in the intellectually docile terminology of hard versus soft Brexit, as if there were only two options from the infinite variety of potential end results to the coming negotiation.

And that is the fourth problem with referendums: the losers often have nowhere to go. You end up with a hugely disenfranchised constituency, who are either agitating for another go or nurse such a constant grievance that they undermine the whole electoral system. That is what is happening now.

It is right and proper that parliament should scrutinise the negotiation undertaken by Theresa May and her team, but what cannot happen is a re-run of the EU referendum. The result is in – and it is clear. Yet the attempt to cobble together a parliamentary coalition against leaving the single market is a giant festival of sour grapes masquerading as patriotism and belief in democracy.

The shenanigans this week illustrate exquisitely how, far from encouraging participation and supporting democracy, referendums generally end up subverting it.

Brexit – that dreaded, bizarre word, simultaneously so empty and so full – has come to define this government though nobody knows what it means and nobody has a clue how to deliver it. Under the guise of fortifying our democracy, it has started to consume it. That's not what plebiscites are meant to do.

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