Conundrum of referendums and why we need another one

Referendums? Are you really so dumb? Surely it should be referenda? All right, I openly admit that I’m no expert on referendums, or referenda, my background being in science and medicine. The following thoughts are strictly those of a layman, but they should be relatively light on establishment bias and received wisdom.

I see five problems and a conundrum

The first problem is that referenda are subject to ‘populist’ forces. What is meant by that?

Suppose there was a referendum on whether we wanted to pay taxes. The populist lobby, attuned to the visceral nature of taxation, would urge us to take back control of our own money. Why let faceless bureaucrats in the government tell us what to do with it? The people should decide how much to give to public services, the armed forces and so on.

In an ideal world of sensible altruistic people, that might work. More likely, the country would go bankrupt.

The second drawback of any referendum is that it polarises and divides with the efficiency of a football match. Supporters flock to opposing sides, whatever the question at issue. Had the question on the ballot paper been “Should be EU remain as it is or move towards greater integration?”, we would now be a nation of remainers pitted against integrationists. A better sort of division, but still a divided nation.

The third anomaly, particularly with the EU referendum, is that of treating ordinary people as experts on matters requiring years of professional experience to understand. This is especially unfair in the case of complex issues like international trade agreements and is, after all, why we pay MPs to represent us. As Richard Dawkins put it “You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on”.

The fourth question concerns permanence. The EU referendum was billed as a once in a lifetime choice. It was not to become a “neverendum”. Is this valid? When a person makes a Will it can always be changed later. Is the will of the people any different? The conundrum of whether earlier or later directives take precedence is entertainingly discussed by Douglas.

The fifth and most serious aspect of the referendum of June 23rd last year, is that it was profoundly undemocratic. Leave aside that the narrow margin was unsafe, pointed out by myself among others. Never mind that the campaign was marred by lies and deception – so to some extent are elections. The fact is that this referendum denied a vote to the very people who will be most affected – young people and expatriates among them, and nothing can be more undemocratic than that.

Should there be another one?

I have no great confidence that another referendum can stop Brexit in the short term. The Battle of Britain sentiment sweeping the country has enduring appeal among older voters, who are the ones who turn out to vote, while the tabloid newspapers will continue banging the “patriotic” drum.

In the longer term however I’m more optimistic. The Brexit fever will eventually run its course.  If the EU blossoms under Macron’s influence, splendid isolation may seem a less attractive policy for Britain and a referendum to rejoin could gather support.

So to conclude, the reason for holding a referendum in two years time is not that remainers have a high chance of winning. It is not even that the electorate have a right to change their minds. The reason is that having had a profoundly undemocratic referendum imposed on them, the only way to right these wrongs to the British people is to grant them a second, more democratic referendum. Properly designed to include young people and everyone who will be affected, free of deliberate deceptions, and delivered to an electorate now more informed about the EU. Whether we win or lose, democracy will then have been served.

* John King is a retired doctor and Remain campaigner.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Michael Cole 12th May '17 - 3:19pm

    John King honestly admits that “I’m no expert on referendums, or referenda, …”.

    Neither am I, but IMO this is a cogent and well argued critique of referenda(ums).

    We are just beginning to see the adverse effects of Brexit – e.g. the fall in the exchange value of sterling, inflationary pressures, the beginning of the movement of financial and other sectors to mainland Europe, the complication of the Ireland border. It will get worse and it will take years before we see the full effects.

    Therefore I strongly support his argument for a democratic referendum on whether or not the people accept the negotiated deal.

  • Although I am no fan of her, Thatcher hit the nail on the head in 1975 about referenda when opposing the first referendum in the House of Commons as can be read here:

    It also includes the pithy comment from Thorpe about the 75 referendum that it fell into the category of the then governing party saying:

    “These are our principles, but if you do not like them we should try to find others later on “.

    A comment which covers exactly what the Conservatives have done.

  • Don’t forget the EU bill. This means when any government prepares a budget, they must minus €100bn frommthe beginning

  • What would be the point of spending a lot of money on a second referendum, just to get the same result, as it would?

    [Quite aside form the point that if this were known to be the UK’s policy, then it would encourage the EU to negotiate in bad faith in order to produce the worst deal possible, in order to try to get a ‘Remain’ vote the second time. They’d be unsuccessful, but they would try, and the end result would be the UK leaving the EU with no deal in place — the worst outcome for everyone.]

  • Richard Dean 12th May '17 - 5:08pm


    1. The result may be different. It may for example demonstrate a much stronger desire to leave the EU than before, which would provide clear and useful evidence of voters’ commitment. Or it may demonstrate a change of opinion, in which case it would help us avoid the situation of the government going ahead with Brexit against the final wishes of a majority of voters.

    2. EU negotiators aren’t stupid. They will know that we have the opportunity to have a second referendum whether we announce it now or not. They will ensure that we are informed on the talks, even in the UK government doesn’t. And they will know that, whether parliament gets a vote on the matter or not, the government really won’t be able to agree any deal if there is strong resistance to the final draft.

  • Nom de Plume 12th May '17 - 5:37pm

    I am not a fan of a second referendum. I rather think that it is the Tory’s mess to sort out. That the Party is proposing a second referendum would suggest to me that they expect the Tories to go for a very hard Brexit, possibly no deal. I would tend to agree. I also think that, now that the Article 50 process has started, the referendum result is irreversible. From what I’ve seen of the debate on the continent it is a settled matter. What now is at stake is the future relationship with the EU.

  • Richard Underhill 12th May '17 - 6:02pm

    The former Greek finance minister has written a long article in the Guardian and a similar article in The Times, which is read by top people such as the current PM. He had a difficult time, but the Greek situation was different from ours, it was mainly about creditors and debtors, with the Greek population wanting to stay in the Euro. He proposes an off the shelf solution which the Brussels eurocrats would not be able to refuse, for a limited period of time, which might cause them to demur, based on the deal Norway currently has. The deal which Norway has was negotiated at a different time, other countries have joined since, may have views and are likely to want to express them. Norway has a long border with Sweden which would be difficult to police as an external border, the UK declined to join.

  • Michael Cole 12th May '17 - 6:23pm

    Hi Dav:

    What evidence do you have for your assertion: “What would be the point of spending a lot of money on a second referendum, just to get the same result, as it would?”

    As the reality of Brexit becomes clearer, I believe an increasing number of people who voted ‘leave’ will realise that Brexit is not such a good idea after all. Democracy, amongst other things, includes the opportunity to change our minds. The ‘lot of money’ argument is merely a red herring.

    You go on to say: “it would encourage the EU to negotiate in bad faith in order to produce the worst deal possible, …” In any case, all the indications are that the 27 nations are not inclined to give the British government an easy ride. Why should they ?

  • On the side issues:
    If it takes years of professional experience to understand the issues then how can generalist MPs decide either?

    What would be the right way to leave the EU then? Simple majority in the HoC with no referendum?

    On the really important issue:
    There is nothing wrong with using the original Latin plural, 1 referendum 2 referenda, as long as one also says 1 museum 2 musea as in the original Latin, 1 robot 2 roboty as in the original Czech etc.

  • Andrew Tampion 13th May '17 - 8:16am

    My response to this article is
    1 in order to be meaningful a referendum on the deal has to make it clear on what basis we stay or rejoin the EU. Do we stay on the same basis as before or do we rejoin and have to join the Euro and Schengen? Do we retain our budget rebate?
    2 in my leave voting area of Leicestershire I saw no decisiveness during or after the campaign. The subject rarely comes up. The only unpleasantness that I can recall is when discussing the result with friends shortly afterwards one of us, a Remainer, launched a vicious and unprovoked verbal attack on another member of the group, a leaver, someone they had known for 30 years. An apology has since been offered and accepted.
    3 I can think of nothing more divisive than a remain win on a changed franchise in a referendum on the deal. In that case up to 17 million people in our country might legitimate feel that they had been cheated out of what they had voted for in a gerrymandered franchise.

  • The basic problem with the referendum is caused by our lack of a written constitution. I would read that as a lack of any constitution at all. It really is time to bring the country into the twentieth century. Perhaps then we can aspire to entering the twenty first.

    When we write a constitution we might arrive at an answer as to who writes the question.

    Perhaps we could have a referendum to decide?

  • The final question of the five that Tony Benn suggested we should always put to those in power was “How do we get rid of you?” Members of Parliament can be sacked. You can’t sack the electorate – which is why representative democracy is more democratic than referenda.

  • A second referendum on the EU but not on Scottish independence.

  • A C Trussell 13th May '17 - 11:17am

    I think a better question on the “It’s time to make your mind-up on “the Deal”” referendum, would be : place in order of preference 1, 2, 3,
    1, Do you accept the deal?
    2. Do you want to completely leave the EU?
    3.Do you want to remain in the EU?

  • Arthur Trussel 13th May '17 - 2:57pm

    Should be a 3 question referendum and put in order of preference:
    1. Do you accept the “Deal”?
    2. Do you want to just leave completely?
    3. Do want to remain in the E.U?

  • Thanks for all the above comments. I’m glad to learn that referendums can be considered correct, so I’m not so dumb after all.

  • In 2012, the conservative-led government forced 11 cities to hold a referendum asking whether they wanted to have an elected mayor. 9 of those 11 cities voted ‘No’ but curiously, they have all been forced to have them anyway.

    What happened to the ‘will of the people’ when it didn’t suit the government?

  • Exactly, Judy. For will of the people, read will of Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily mail.

  • Michael Berridge 16th May '17 - 12:47pm

    This debate is important but not high enough on my agenda.
    My next agendum is lunch.

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