The government's opportunistic support for referenda will damage democracy

The tool of dictators and demagogues makes its return.

This government has implemented or announced referenda for three things: a national referendum on whether or not the electoral system used in general elections should be switched to AV; a local referendum whenever a council decides to increase council tax by more than 2 per cent in one year; and a national referendum, to be held in the second half of the next parliament if the Tories get a majority and David Cameron manages to renegotiate Britain's treaties, on whether or not the UK should stay in the EU.

That is not the pattern of a government which has a coherent belief in when norms of democracy require referenda; it is, rather, the pattern of a government which believes in the art of using referenda to manipulate the agenda under the guise of democracy.

The AV referendum is the sort which, under the shaky constitutional settlement which emerged from the Blair years, is now a requirement. Major constitutional changes require the consent of those hit by them. Major, in this case, has previously meant a change to electoral politics, or substantial delegation of sovereignty (the exception being Northern Ireland, where the Good Friday referendum was integral to building a coalition of support for the Good Friday agreement). There was ridiculous, infantile campaigning, but the need for a referendum was clear.

The referendum on membership of the EU is less clear. The referendum is apparently justified based on the fact that there has been a significant amount of change in the EU since the last referendum in 1975. But Britain, with its unwritten constitution, is almost characterised by gradual but persistent change. In the last hundred years, the roles of the monarchy and the House of Lords have changed dramatically, without referenda. The UK has also joined, and strengthened its ties to, the UN, NATO, the IMF and the WTO, without referenda.

This is likely part of the reason the referendum is predicated on the idea that Cameron wins "concessions" from the EU. That way, what is being voted on isn't continued membership in an institution which has gradually changed, but rather a straight proposal to directly change a number of things in our relationship with that institution.

But the referendum proposal which really demonstrates the government's desire to use the system as a political bludgeon is Eric Pickle's suggestion that councils which raise council tax by more than two per cent should have to hold local referenda.

There is no constitutional or theoretical justification for this whatsoever. Pickles says:

I don’t have a problem with councils that want to put up council tax if they have a good reason – to fund local opportunities. But I do have an issue if they don’t ask permission first. They have to man up. Be straight with people. Take them into their confidence. If the public believes you’ve got a sensible case they might well listen. But councils should also stop treating residents with contempt.

But if that is to be a guiding principle for future referenda, then why did the government not "man up" when they raised VAT? And ought they to have been "straight with people" when they ended EMA? They certainly didn't "take them into their confidence" over their decision to proceed with a top-down re-organisation of the NHS.

If this government did decide to move to a Swiss-style system of direct democracy, that would be a major constitutional change. Ironically, it would probably be so large as to require a referendum to give it the mandate to do so.

But it transparently has no desire to do so. Instead, the referendum lock on council tax is just a method to impose a cap in a way that replaces toxic language of "central government control" with happy words like "democracy" and "consultation".

We already have democracy, of sorts, in the UK. It is representative, and it relies on parties and candidates running for election with clear sets of promises and priorities, and then sticking to them once elected. If Mr Pickles does want to attack "democracy dodgers", he could do worse than to look at his own coalition partners, authors of the most famous fictional manifesto in British political history. But offering votes on things you'll win, then ignoring public opinion on things you won't, isn't democracy in any sense I recognise. It's more recognisable as the tool of dictators and demagogues Atlee warned of.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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