Voting and the long poisonous shadow of the referendum

Richard Lutz braces himself for an election that will stop the country cold in its winter tracks.

Etonian hubris


The streets are packed with Christmas shoppers, the weather is wet and lousy and everyone’s ticked off with the whole election. What better time to have a national vote?

It is a sour ballot based on a fundamental irresolvable clash between two types of democracy: representative and direct. The conflict makes for a system that does not work. It is unsolvable and when we go to the polls, we will be overshadowed by this utter impasse that has stopped Britain cold in its winter tracks.

This is the problem:

When David Cameron came to power in 2010 with Libdem leader Nick Clegg as a junior member of the coalition, he slapped down promises promises. There would be a trio of referendums (aka referenda) where the individual voters bypassed their elected officials (the MPs) and voted themselves on an issue. Cameron lucked out with the first two. They went his way: the country seemed totally indifferent to a national referendum to change the first past the post voting system to be replaced by an alternative vote (AV) system. This suited the Tories and shut up their Libdem junior partners.

Three years later in September 2014, the Scots rejected by 55%-45% an independence vote. That was two out of three that went Cameron’s way.

But with the next referendum, Etonian hubris got the better of him. The wheels came unstuck.  Cameron wanted to try to patch up his Tory party split over Europe. This third referendum which bypassed representative democracy was for a people’s vote on the EU. He was upended when 52% voted to leave.

It ended Cameron’s political career. And it also highlighted how a country cannot have two parallel systems of democracy. It just doesn’t work. The High Court ruled that the direct vote could not be legally binding because it flew in the face of parliamentary sovereignty. But Brexiteers ignored this ruling, saying simply that 17 million British voters want to leave the EU. Parliament, composed of 650 MPs of various hues, took up arms.

This stalemate will not end when the election results flow from Whitehall on Friday morning; here still will be two parallel paths to democracy in Britain. Which system is primary and which is secondary? Which system works? Unfortunately, it will never be resolved.

In the United States, there are referendums galore. Scrolling through a quick net search, I found that between 1904 and 2007, there were 2,231 referendums on a statewide level. More than 900 had been approved. There is also a recall system, for direct voting on whether to remove an elected official in certain poltical arenas.

But the American system is only statewide. It does not conflict with its national representative system embedded in the two houses of Congress. In the past, Britain has also had local referendums: for instance, on whether London needed a mayor (May, 1998) and the crucial Good Friday agreement (also May 1998) to a series of direct voting on Welsh, Northern Irish  and Scottish devolutions. But never a national vote that flies in the face of the Houses of Parliament.

So, Cameron and his 2010 advisors have created this shambles of two systems nationally sparring. And the fallout of this disasterous, rash and narrow minded decision a decade ago will mar our future for some time to come. It is all David Cameron’s fault.



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