The thing about referendums

I’m quite fond of representative democracy, and don’t think replicating the Swiss or Californian system would be a particularly good idea. I do however think that referendums are an occasionally vital and necessary part of democracy, and to do away with them, like the German constitution does, would be a great mistake.

There are situations where referendums are the only acceptable alternative. As a supporter of representative democracy I disagree with people who say that this or that issue is too important to be dealt with by the normal electoral process. But I do think I think referendums are necessary when an issue is 1) divisive 2) vitally important and 3) the normal partisan system cannot properly deal with, because the fault lines are different. As a corollary, anytime sovereignty is involved, I think an issue has to be pretty minor for you not to hold a referendum.

Most of the referendums on EU memberships are textbook cases of this situation. In the case of Sweden, nearly half of voters opposed Swedish entry and for most of the campaign the no side led. Without a referendum they would have had to vote for the Green or Left parties if they wanted to stop our entry. Both quite radical non-mainstream parties who together held less than 10% of the vote. In some countries all parties were for membership. In these instances I feel not holding a referendum would be undemocratic, and would to some degree disenfranchise (to use an American term) the whole electorate.

Now, you maybe a democrat purely for instrumental reasons, and not care about my moral appeal. But ask yourself, is excluding the public from wise and prudent in the long run?

Referendums aren’t generally necessary for classical right/left issues and are inappropriate for deciding small bore issues or important but technical and non-ideological decisions. They also should conform to certain rules to not do more harm than good.

The questions should be posed in such a way as to give a clear indication of what to do. A referendum should never have more than two options. Ideally, they should either be a yes or no question or an issue where there genuinely are only are two options, and no excluded middles. There should be no confusion of what one is voting is for (or rather the direct as opposed to long term consequences of what you’re voting for, the latter will almost always be unknowable.)

The constitution is clearly a divisive issue where the fault lines are different from the partisan right/left split, and clearly quite important. Attempts by politicians to pass off the constitution as “a clean up exercise” are pretty disgraceful. It will give the Parliament more authority, and change the balance of power between governments, and give the EU several new competences. It’s not nearly as radical as the more unhinged eurosceptics claim, but nevertheless represents a significant change. Nor is the balance of power, between the EU between and its constituent parts, between the governments, and between the institutions, in any way a technical issue, as some would have it.

Bear also in mind that there’s no reason to think only of what the constitution changes. I for one can think of numerous things to disapprove of in the current arrangement that will be in the constitution and you would vote to approve it.
Moreover, the process of integration has been going on for several generations without anyone asking the people what they thought (with some exceptions.) For example, it was maybe defensible in itself not to put the Amsterdam treaty to a vote. But treaty upon treaty has been signed without input from the voters. The governments could if they wanted to have pursued integration in a more piecemeal fashion where any step wasn’t so dramatic, but that wouldn’t have made it any more democratic.

The constitution is certainly complex, but so are the issues in any election. The actual question is not, they are to vote yes/no. One could question if these referendums will give a clear expression of what the electorate wants, an instruction to the politicians, but I don’t think that’s a major problem. A no could hardly be read as an endorsement of the status quo, but the expectation is that they’ll come up with a different constitution that will get its own vote. And I actually think there is a clear answer to what would be the proper interpretation of what people are voting against – and for. More on that later, knock on wood.