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  1. Politics
23 June 2016

Referendums cheapen our democracy – here’s why

We elect MPs to make decisions, not to outsource them. 

By Julia Rampen

Thousands of mourners had gathered in Trafalgar Square, London, to celebrate the life of the murdered MP Jo Cox on what would have been her 42nd birthday. The speakers urged them to put aside politics for a moment, to focus on love, not hate. And then the plane buzzed overhead. 
When I looked up, I saw directly above me the banner proclaiming: “Take Control – Leave” as the plane raced across the sky. 

The plane organisers later said they had no idea what was going on. But to me, this obnoxious intrusion symbolised only too clearly the way referendums trespass on our daily democratic lives. And when it comes to referendums, I’m a veteran. 

I grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland . Before 2011, I could have invited a wide group of friends and relations round for dinner and they would have broadly agreed on the prospect of further devolution. There would have been a debate on politicians, and policy, but it would have been a good one. 

Fast forward to the summer of the Scottish referendum. If I’d had the same group round for dinner, it would have descended into a brawl. I’d heard pro-unionists tell anyone considering an independence vote they were “stupid”, while my Facebook page was full of increasingly shrill #indyref-ers demanding uncritical support. Any thoughtful opinion was confided in lowered tones. 

But it’s all in the cause of a healthy democracy, right? I don’t think so. Here’s why:

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1. Binary isn’t best

Referendums are like the Bush doctrine – you’re either with us or you’re against us (and probably a terrorist). Actually, most healthy democracies have more than two parties. Yes, party number three may have a bonkers manifesto and be running one council, but it is there. And maybe over time it will grow, just as Labour eclipsed the Liberals in the 20th century. 

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2. It outsources decisions…

If you’re the chief executive of a large company, relying on your shareholders to sort out your management problems is generally not seen as a sign of success. This referendum was a bone thrown to a particular Tory faction, which happens to be fixated on Europe. If David Cameron was so insecure about his ability to make decisions for his party on the EU, why didn’t he just offer himself up for a confidence vote? 

3. And wastes time

Jo Cox was clearly an outstanding constituency MP. In other words, she did the job she was elected to do. And more. In Trafalgar Square, I met a group of Syrian refugees who told me she was due to meet them in August. It makes you wonder what, if she hadn’t had to spend the last two months knocking on doors, she could have achieved instead.

4. It’s mob rule

A democracy is not the same as majoritarian rule. Except, apparently, during referendums, when minority protections count for zilch. The Irish referendum on gay marriage was widely celebrated, but what if it had gone the other way? Does that make the LGBT community’s rights any less valid? The EU referendum was announced with scant regard for the UK’s smaller constituent nations. Now it’s quite possible the voting whims of middle England could destroy the Northern Irish peace process. 

5. It doesn’t settle the question

Perhaps it would be worth risking all of the above, if a referendum truly settled a question. But too often, as the debate becomes more emotional and polarised, it does the opposite. No sooner had the Scottish referendum results been announced, but 45 percenters were marching around Parliament demanding another one. If the vote goes Remain, the Brexiteers might wake up on Friday and say: “Oh well, the nation has spoken, let’s have our tea,” but I doubt it. 

As for me, it might be two years on from the Scottish referendum, but I won’t be having that dinner party any time soon.