Referendums: an addendum to the conundrum

In my previous post I reviewed some of the problems associated with referendums, in particular the conundrum posed by the “once in a lifetime” proposition. It is no wonder that two of our previous Prime Ministers described them as un-British, and a tool for dictators and demagogues.

Here, as a break from all the election talk, I add a few more criticisms for good measure. But despite the shortcomings that referendums undoubtedly have, my conclusion remains the same: we still need another one. 

Chancy outcomes

Referendums can have perverse and unexpected consequences. To take a rather silly example, suppose the British Medical Association called a vote on whether flower remedies should replace the MMR vaccine. The BMA might think it was a sure win for the vaccine, which does a wonderful job of protecting our children. But in reality it would be an enormous gamble.

The problem here is that, just like the benefits of the EU, the benefits of the vaccine have been taken for granted for years. People have forgotten how serious illnesses like measles, mumps and rubella can be.

Furthermore, just like the EU, the vaccine has its enemies. Andrew Wakefield, struck off the medical register in 2010 for fraudulently linking it to autism, has not crept shamefully away but has established himself in the United States, counting a certain Donald Trump among his supporters. The result? The worst measles outbreak there for decades.

Yet the BBC, anxious to be fair to him, would give him at least 50% of airtime in the name of ‘balance’, and he would waste no time in sowing doubt and uncertainty among a public already suspicious of ‘Big Pharma’.

The flower remedy people meantime would proclaim the wisdom of folk medicine, citing the romantic notion of the apothecary rose, a mythical panacea from centuries ago. Pictures of English roses in full bloom would adorn the tabloid newspapers and flower power buses would tour the country.

It would be a sad day for public health, just as June 23rd was a sad day for politics.

I said this was a silly example, but our situation in reality is worse. At least flower remedies are harmless, whereas Brexit is purely destructive.

Another one?

Should there be another referendum, given all the drawbacks? Ideally not perhaps, but now that the Brexit milk has been spilt, it is rather difficult to put it back into the bottle. It may take a referendum to cure a referendum, so to speak.

And next time, it could well succeed. Because many people, given the power to express their discontents, will vote for change – any change. Last time, this produced the Leave vote. Next time, as debts pile up and the delights of increased sovereignty begin to fade, the no-change option will be to put up with the consequences of Brexit. But the positive alternative will be to do something about it.

And the alternative is likely to be increasingly attractive. As the EU blossoms under the Macron-Merkel partnership, it will have all the appeal of flower power.

In conclusion, however unsatisfactory last year’s referendum was, the upside is that we can learn from our experiences and make sure that any future one is as honest as we can make it, scrupulously fair to both sides. It should certainly be extended to include our young people, the 16 and 17 year olds who will be most affected. And of course it will respect the wishes of the 27 other countries, all of whom are directly affected by our actions, but all of whom were ignored the last time round.

Acknowledgment: I am grateful to Dr. Paul Gray, former research director for the European Commission, for his contributions to this post.


* John King is a retired doctor and Remain campaigner.

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  • David Becket 13th Jun '17 - 4:26pm

    We need another referendum like we need a hole in the head.

    Both us and the SNP had a referendum as a major policy in our campaigns. Look where it got us both.

    Our line should that we will campaign to remain in the single market, protect the rights of EN citizens, protect our access to EU environmental programmes and the security provisions. Only if this fails and we look like crashing out will we call for a second referendum.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Jun '17 - 5:47pm

    The Daily Telegraph today analyses the makeup of the House of Commons, in blocks of political parties, and finds a majority for a soft Brexit. They also report on the ‘usual channels’ in which Tories do deals directly with Labour behind the scenes.
    A ‘proposition’ in California on property taxes made the state almost ungovernable and undermined normal elections, leading to a recall election of the governor.
    Deals are different. The next Prime Minister of the Irish Republic will soon receive a visit from Arlene Foster (DUP) who is in London today.

  • Richard Elliott 13th Jun '17 - 6:18pm

    Agree that referendums are toxic, the public don’t want it and it didn’t do you any good politically. Given that there is likely to be another GE before Brexit, why not have a more straightforward position – total opposition to Brexit and support the revoking of A50 by act of parliament and then to negotiate with the EU to remain. The democracy argument is that every Lib Dem candidate will present that at the next election as part of the manifesto – thus voters are free to vote for it or not.

  • “It should certainly be extended to include our young people, the 16 and 17 year olds who will be most affected.”
    I do wish people would stop trying to make tenuous links to a change in the voting threshold. Going back to the example, please explain how 16 and 17-year-olds would be most affected by a flower remedies/MMR vaccine referendum.

    “And of course it will respect the wishes of the 27 other countries, all of whom are directly affected by our actions”
    Following the logic of the article, in a referendum, the other 27 could vote to simply get shot of a troublesome partner…

  • I agree that ideally another referendum would not be needed. In an ideal world Brexit would be cancelled like a miss-sold insurance policy. The perpetrators would be fined or given community service orders and the British public would be compensated for having their time wasted. However this is unlikely politically so a referendum is the next best solution.

  • Peter Martin 13th Jun '17 - 9:56pm

    @ John King,

    The perpetrators would be fined or given community service orders

    Would these include all the Lib Dem MPs who voted in the 2015 EU Referendum Act to have the June 2016 referendum?

    All except Nick Clegg I believe.

  • Good old Nick Clegg. Not really, Peter. They didn’t vote for it in the expectation there would be a Brexit, did they? Probably thought remaining was a foregone conclusion, like Cameron.

  • Russell Bloom 14th Jun '17 - 8:14am

    I believe the referendum will prove to be a waste of taxpayer money and loss of wealth for this country. It is looking like we are going to end up being linked to the EU without having the power to be part of the reform process. My view is the whole issue of leaving the bloc is a play on semantics. Ordinary people, I believe, do not care about the complexity and granular detail of being part of the EU, they care about whether they are going to get good healthcare, secure jobs, are safe and good education. The vast majority of these are domestic issues and not incompatible with EU membership. And on the issue of control of immigration, if the government was serious about that they would have looked at immigration broadly not through the prism of EU migration. The EU has been used as a scapegoat to vent about domestic challenges that the government has failed to deal with properly.

  • Peter Martin 14th Jun '17 - 9:38am

    @ John King,

    As the EU blossoms under the Macron-Merkel partnership, it will have all the appeal of flower power

    Angela Merkel, Wolfgang Schauble and co are insistent that the failed rules of the appallingly misnamed Stability and Growth Pact, which have brought economic misery to many EU countries, including France, be maintained. Emmanuel Macron is in his honeymoon period and, sure, there’s a lot of optimism he can dispel that misery. We’ve yet to see how it will develop.

    From what I have read he does understand the urgent need to tackle the problem of the huge German trade surplus. Euros enter a German economy never to re-emerge except as loans begrudgingly lent by German taxpayers. If Emmanuel Macron tries to challenge Merkel, and German Ordoliberalism generally, it won’t be a partnership. It will be a conflict. If he doesn’t, and jumps into bed with them, the problems of the EU continue as before. Nothing will change.

    He’s a centrist technocrat. I hope, for the sake of the EU, I’m wrong but my expectation is that he’ll fiddle around at the edges with various supply-side reforms to the French economy which simply won’t be enough and probably won’t work anyway. That will take a few years to become apparent. The optimism will have evaporated by then and we’ll see a resurgence of Marine le Pen and her FN.

  • Matt (Bristol) 14th Jun '17 - 1:58pm

    Quite happy for the party to stand on a platform of constraining and refining the process by which referenda are held.

    For eg, 60% majority in HoC to pass a motion for a constitutional referendum?
    Or all referenda which fail to rally 25% of the registered electorate behind a specific proposition to be considered to be purely advisory, with a further parliamentary endorsement required to act.

    But I would not rule them out altogether as a tool in the democratic process. If you do that, you give life to the embers of UKIP, for one thing.

  • Peter Hirst 14th Jun '17 - 2:09pm

    I start from the principle that direct democracy is a good thing as it engages the electorate. The devil is in the process. It must be modified to gain credibility. Thresholds and turnouts need to be considered. I think it does need a further referendum to counter last June’s ( or endorse ).

  • Agreed – we need another referendum to heal (and reverse) this idiotic referendum.

    So sad that TF has resigned!

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