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A referendum: Interpreting the electorate’s wishes

posted 30 Sep 2016, 06:35 by Robert Johnston
A referendum is an interesting case in decision making but what are its advantages and pitfalls?

The Economist addresses the subject this week. Brexit is clearly in mind but the recent Swiss referendum on migrants is also an instructive case. They have in common the issues of migration and EU single market membership or degree of access.

One of the criteria (necessary but not sufficient) for a good decision is that is consistent with a wider set of linked decisions (all of which are therefore good from this point of view). The Swiss case shows a specific example of a referendum question that provided an outcome that was in conflict not only with decisions but also commitments the government had made.

Governments exist to form policy and make decisions. There are so many decision that they cannot delegate them all although the Swiss have constitutional mechanism to trigger a considerable number. Through practice the questions tend to be specific in scope and consequences. They were in this case but still not so specific that the decision can stand in isolation. 

The UK Brexit referendum question was specific in scope:

"Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?"

but not in consequences. The only action that you could argue that follows from the decision is triggering Article 50. On all other issues the full spectrum of possibilities remains.

So when, if ever should a referendum by held? As rarely as possible. Do not fall for the argument that is is a legitimate and desirable extension of democracy. Democracy is there to remove bad governments and governments are there to formulate policy and make decisions within it.

If we must have a referendum then let it not be possible for the government to decide that it should be called. An independent commission, for example, should consider whether it is appropriate and formulate the question. 

The governments confidence in the outcome of the Brexit vote was probably informed by their appreciation of the web of consequences that made Brexit clearly undesirable and implicitly presupposed a grasp of these consequences across a significant number of electors. However, it is clear that these consequences where not within the grasp, or foremost in the minds,  of the electorate as a whole.