I’m not one of those who would argue that referendums are alien to the UK constitution and should therefore be avoided. Apart from any other consideration, such arguments are usually based ultimately in the fiction that sovereignty is the exclusive property of the god-anointed monarch who graciously agrees to share part of it with parliament; a fiction which those of us of a more republican bent naturally and instinctively reject. If sovereignty resides with the people rather than with the monarch, then referendums are one way of allowing the people to express that sovereignty.
That doesn’t mean that referendums are problem-free though. One of the more obvious problems is that they have to reduce everything to a single, simple question. In the case of the EU, that simple question was whether we wanted to be in or out. The basis on which people came to a conclusion about that simple question was then down to each individual, and there’s no doubt in my mind that different people had very different rationales for the decisions that they individually took.
Clearly, the whole question of immigration was a major part of the thinking of many people who chose to believe that the EU was in some way the cause of immigration and that exit would mean an end to immigration. That was always over-simplistic, but it was a belief that was encouraged by many on the ‘leave’ side. In some cases, that was because they themselves wanted to stop immigration, but I’m sure that I’m not alone in suspecting that in some cases, they knew full well that Brexit in itself wasn’t going to make a huge difference to the levels of immigration; and maybe didn’t really care that much about the subject anyway. They were simply, and very cynically, playing the cards that they thought would help them win.
The Prime Minister’s rejection of a points-based system for immigration today has caused some consternation amongst those who mistakenly thought that that is what they were voting for. Farage has gone so far as to declare that “The people were clear in wanting a points-based immigration system which is why so many went out and voted to leave the European Union”. Perhaps he really does think that is what people were voting for, but there was no mention of a points-based immigration system on the ballot paper – or indeed of immigration at all. He is confusing two different things here – the first is what people actually voted for, and the second is the reasons why they voted as they did. The ballot paper only measured the first of those; in a referendum, the second is irrelevant.
In simple terms, the ‘leave’ side made all sorts of promises which they were never in a position to make, because they could never keep them. Election manifestos are bad enough; parties make all sorts of promises which they never keep – and perhaps sometimes never intend to. But in a referendum, there is no manifesto, no package of measures, simply a straight yes or no to one individual question. That is a major weakness of a system of decision-making based on referendums.
It’s not necessarily an argument against holding referendums, or against being bound by the results – and in the case of the EU referendum, it’s too late to put those arguments anyway. The best that we can hope for in the specific case is that, as the truth about the detail comes out, there will be a sufficiently significant shift of opinion to justify revisiting the question. It is, though, an argument for thinking very carefully about what issues should be subject to a referendum and when such a referendum should be held. It’s not an easy question to answer – too soon in any process, and the subject matter is too ill-defined for the campaigns to be able to be adequately rooted in fact; too late, and people will feel that the deal is already done and dusted and they’re just being asked to rubber stamp it.My own preference is for a two-stage process on issues such as the EU (and I’d argue the same in the case of independence referendums): an early vote on the principle, and a final vote on the detail. It means asking people to consider and vote on the same issue twice, but if we’re going to use the more direct approach to democracy which referendums represent, it is surely preferable that the final decision is an informed one. It wouldn’t stop people from voting on the basis of irrelevant or peripheral considerations, of course; but it might make it clearer what they are actually voting on and deter spurious claims after the event that “that wasn’t what we voted for”.