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Views on Europe | The Democracy Edition

Professor Gerry Stoker

The EU referendum: an exercise in sustained stupidity

I am now increasingly inclined to the view that referendums are a really bad way of deciding anything. My doubts started to surface last year in the referendum on Scotland's independence. Whatever the outcome of that vote had been in the end it could not have led directly to Scotland becoming an independent state because beyond the question posed in the referendum was a more complex reality. If Scotland had voted yes to independence it would rather have got, in a constitutional sense, a confederation with the rest of the UK, sharing the same sovereign, currency, military and so on. In short what was allegedly the choice was not real. And if I am right and the real option was confederation the whole of the UK should have had a vote!

Similar issues arise in the EU referendum. Voters are asked to vote REMAIN or LEAVE. But neither choice can in practice be delivered. A vote to stay in does not mean that the relationship with the EU is fixed for all time. What the EU is by 2026, a mere decade way, may be a very different institution. Voting to stay is the equivalent of signing a blank cheque. A vote to LEAVE is equally disingenuous as no one, not even the politicians campaigning for it, really mean leave. Leave does not mean a life separate from the EU, as it implies, but rather a different relationship. What is on offer is an unclear and as yet to be negotiated new deal with the EU to allow for trade, migration, scientific co-operation etc. In short the questions asked in referendums are too often over choices that are not real or perhaps too complex to be posed by way of a referendum.

I can add to these concerns three other issues. The first is who do we blame if it turns out the decision was a disaster. If a government makes a decision that goes badly wrong we as citizens at least have the pleasure of making them pay at the next election. But if the decision comes from citizens who hold the ones that got it wrong to account? We are told that this is a once in generation decision. Do young citizens-who opinion polls suggest are generally more pro-EU- get to blame older citizens, who are more likely to be anti-EU, if the vote is to leave proves a big mistake in a few years? There is a basic lack of accountability in referendum decision-making.

Another major concern is the total guess work that is required of citizens to make the decision. People ask for more information or more facts but these are near impossible to deliver over the issues that matter. No expert or politician can know for sure the economic, social and political implications of staying in or out. Yet somehow magically citizens are supposed to know. It’s one thing to be asked to choose a MP or the potential PM where all sorts of cues and information can help you to come to a judgement, even if it’s based on a hunch or feeling. But the EU referendum reduces citizens to the equivalent of sticking a tail on the donkey whilst blindfolded as a method of choice.

Finally referendums called by political elites are a recipe for reinforcing further still distrust in politics. The long-term impact of anti-politics is a loss of confidence among politicians that makes a referendum the appeasement option. But it’s a solution that only exacerbates the problem. The image it gives of politicians it that they do not have the courage to make a stand and carry party and voters with them and so pass the buck to citizens. It may that Cameron felt in making the promise of a referendum a further coalition government post the 2015 election would give him the excuse to drop the plan. “Sorry can’t do it as the Liberal Democrats said no”, might have been the line if the Tories had not won a surprise overall majority.

We know that over three quarters of MPs favour remaining the EU. We just voted them back in 2015, so why didn't they have the courage of their convictions and use their judgement. Should we now have referendums called on all issues that a mere three quarters of our elected representatives agree on? Moreover the dishonest exchanges during the referendum campaign that politicians are engaging in will further cement antipathy to politics. The sight of politicians within the same party calling each other liars and idiots is unlikely to spread trust in politics.

In short I fear that referendums tend to encourage a sustained exercise in stupidity. I am all for getting the public more involved in decision-making and for reforming our failing political system but referendums are not the way to go.




Professor Gerry Stoker

Gerry is Professor of Politics and Governance at the University of Southampton, UK and is a Fellow at the institute for Goverance and Policy at the University of Canberra. His main research interests are in governance, democratic politics, local and regional governance, urban politics, public participation and public service reform. He was the founding chair of the New Local Government Network that was the think-tank of the year in 2004 and his most recent book Why Politics Matters won the 2006 political book of the year award from the Political Studies Association of the UK.

Josiah Mortimer

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