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The problem with referendums

Referendums often offer indeterminate change from the status quo. Even with properly specified alternatives, people often decide for other reasons than the issue on the ballot paper.


Posted 20 March 2017

Proponents of referendums appear to regard them as the purest exercise of voter sovereignty. Conversely the UK as a long-standing democracy never held a referendum until 1975. The most successful constitution in history, that of the USA, contains no provision for referendums.

In the aftermath of the 2016 EU Referendum, I have been thinking about referendums, and have concluded that they are almost always a bad idea. I set out my thoughts in a recent article on Conservative Home, which can be read below.

Mohammed Amin: Why referendums are almost always a bad idea

Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He writes in a personal capacity.

In 1945, Clement Attlee called referendums un-British and a “device of dictators and demagogues“. Margaret Thatcher quoted him with approval when speaking in Parliament in 1975 about the referendum that Harold Wilson was proposing, and which was later held, on the UK’s EEC membership.

I believe whole history books could be written about the abuse of referendums overseas.

In my view, referendums fall into two categories:

  1. The opportunity to choose between the status quo and “a pig in a poke.”
  2. A choice between the status quo and a completely specified alternative.

“A pig in a poke” referendums

While the status quo is always known, in such referendums the alternative one is being asked to vote for is not completely specified. They are the equivalent of “Please sign here to sell me your house. I will tell you later what I am going to pay you.”

The 2014 Scottish independence referendum asking “Should Scotland be an independent country?” falls into this category.

The SNP asked voters to say “Yes” without being told what currency Scotland would use; if it used the pound the terms of that use; and whether it would be a member of the European Union. To ask citizens to vote in the absence of this information was, at its most fundamental, an abuse of the democratic process.

Before asking Scottish citizens to vote at all, there should have been a completely negotiated agreement between the UK and Scotland, ratified by the UK Parliament and needing only a result in a Scottish referendum to come into force, without requiring any further negotiations. Furthermore, there should have been a clear statement obtained from the organs of the EU on whether an independent Scotland would become an EU member (and if so precisely how and when) or whether it would have to apply for membership from scratch like any other non-EU country.

For its own political reasons, the SNP chose not to go down the route of negotiate first and decide later. However, it was a disgrace for the UK government to be complicit in such a cavalier treatment of the Scottish people.

A choice between the status quo and a completely specified alternative

The 2011 Alternative Vote referendum falls into this category. Voters knew exactly how Parliamentary elections would be conducted in future, both if they chose to retain the status quo, or if they voted for change in accordance with the referendum question.

However, this referendum illustrates the other problem with referendums. Especially with apparently dry technical questions, people often do not vote on the question being asked but cast their vote for other reasons. The campaign against change successfully converted the referendum in the minds of many citizens into a plebiscite on the entirely different question “Do you like (or trust) Nick Clegg?” rather than a choice between voting systems.

I have not forgotten one of my relatives saying to me in early 2016 regarding the EU referendum that she was inclined to vote “Leave” in order to “Stick it to David Cameron”. Every citizen is of course entitled to vote for any reason they wish, but the consequences of referendums are often much more permanent than the consequences of electing one more member of Parliament from a particular party.

The biggest problem with referendums

Even when the referendum question is properly specified, a referendum offers voters a binary choice without any consideration of the consequences that potentially flow from the choices.

A good example is Proposition 13 which voters of California passed in 1978 to reduce property taxes. Voters were not asked to consider how taxes related to state spending or how other taxes levied by California should be adjusted. For those able to access it, I recommend the 2009 Economist article about California: “The ungovernable state” which explains how the ability for citizens to launch referendums has impaired good government in California.

Concluding comments

Even though referendums sometimes produce results that I approve of (legalisation of cannabis usage by some American states), I still believe that they should be dispensed with entirely. Instead all such decisions should be made by the legislature which is able to weigh properly the alternative courses of action.

Accordingly, I was very pleased when the Australian Parliament refused to hold a referendum on gay marriage, considering instead that this matter should be resolved by Parliament.

The only exception to my complete prohibition of referendums that I would make is that if the UK ever adopts a written constitution (which I believe it should), I believe that it could only be entrenched by a referendum since no Parliament can bind its successor.

Obviously, the last thing I want is a referendum “Should the UK have a written constitution YES/NO.” Instead, Parliament should produce a fully written constitution, approve it, and then put that text to the UK people for approval and set an appropriate majority to be achieved for the change from the status quo to come automatically into effect if the required votes are received.

Conservative Home readers' comments

The Conservative Home website periodically removes readers' comments. Until then, a large number of comments can be found below the original piece on Conservative Home. Some of the comments show that their writers simply do not trust Members of Parliament to represent their interests.

That is disquieting for those who care about the health of our democracy.

Addendum 25 March 2017

This addendum was added as a response to a Disqus comment by Gary Slawther (which should be below) which I have reproduced here for permanence. I know Gary in the real world, and he is a high qualified professional.

Gary Slawther comment

Mohammed, I don't know if you remember the great Dennis Turner, chief economist of HSBC (whose politics made Jeremy Corbyn look like Angry of Tonbridge Wells) but I remember him very cogently arguing why the UK should not have a referendum to join the Euro. He said that we elect our representatives (MPs) as intelligent people to diligently scrutinise proposals advised by knowledgeable civil servants supported by expert opinion. In referendums people tend, as your article suggests, not to vote after a considered and informed weighing of the facts and arguments but based on emotions and already formed views and positions, which does not necessarily achieve the best results for the country. But his biggest argument was that his mother would have a vote. As he put it "Now, I love my dear old mum but she reads The Sun" and if The Sun told her how to vote that's how she would vote but to, be honest, he really didn't want The Sun making major economic decisions for the UK. I must admit, I'm with him on that one....

The comment reminds us of the key distinction between representative democracy and referendums.

Representative democracy

The words of the US Declaration of Independence have rung down to us through the centuries: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, ..."

This is not an equality of knowledge or intelligence, but of moral worth. Each person's life is as valuable in the eyes of God as any other's, whether a prince or a pauper, a scholar or an ignoramus.

That is why representative democracies work on the basis of "one person, one vote." My mother was illiterate, but she was rightly entitled to the same vote for a Member of Parliament as me, a university graduate.

Voters elect MPs to take decisions on their behalf. The key choice the voter is making is "Do I trust this MP to represent the interests of me and all my fellow constituents?" Anyone is capable of making such a choice, regardless of the level of their knowledge or education.


In a referendum, the voter is being asked to decide potentially complex issues directly.

My mother died long ago. However she would have been incapable of forming a considered opinion about either of the two UK-wide referendums that have taken place since, namely the Alternative Vote Referendum and the EU Referendum.

It is impossible to form a meaningful opinion on either of those issues if you cannot read or write, and have zero understanding of different voting systems, or of the mechanisms involved in the EU and in international trade and treaties.

While my mother is an extreme example chosen to illustrate the point, a very large part of any population is always unable to form a considered opinion on any referendum issue because they lack knowledge and lack the skills to analyse the issues involved.

That is why we need representative democracy, and why calls for more referendums are siren voices that must be resisted.


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