The importance of referenda


There are two arguments that are frequently quoted opposing the use of referenda in UK politics. The first is the cost associated with educating the electorate on the issues involved and administering the vote, the second, the fact that holding them would undermine Parliamentary sovereignty. In fact it is clear these arguments are not simply flawed, but are in fact arguments in favour of an increase in the use of referenda.

At present the vast majority of decisions made in Whitehall are done so in back rooms, by quangos or other such bodies. The manner in which they operate is far from transparent, with deals being reached out of the rightful glare of public scrutiny. These vast bloated groups are inefficient as well as costly, taking excessively long periods of time to reach ant substantial conclusion. It seems logical therefore, that were the same amount of taxpayers' money spent on educating the electorate on the issues at hand, the benefit would be twofold. The electorate will ultimately have a better grasp on political issues, meaning personality and media play less of a role in electing future politicians, and the mood of the public can be properly gauged. The cost in education will be partly borne by pressure groups interested in whichever area is being voted on. As long as suitable controls on lobbying are introduced this free market approach can be transferred to mainstream politics. 

The largest ever protest in the UK was in opposition to the Iraq War. The march through London saw approximately one million people objecting to the invasion. Did the invasion go ahead, despite the evident public opposition? Yes. Would that have been the case had it gone to a referendum that had been binding on the government? No. The Blair government knew this would be the case, that there would be widespread national objection to the conflict, and so acted against public opinion, thus committing billions of pounds and the lives of hundreds of troops to an unwanted illegal war. New Labour was also in favour of joining the single European currency, but as part of their manifesto pledge promised a vote that they knew they would lose. Had Britain committed, it is suggested that it would be in a similar position as Greece is now, dependent on the IMF. This demonstrates how a government is prepared to alter its behaviour to be more in keeping with the public mood even with the simple potential for a referendum. 

Jamie Brooke is the winner of the 2010 Young Writer on Liberty.