The problem with making decisions by the blunt and heavy tool of referenda is now very apparent. One self evident difficulty is how to cope with contradictory results. Scotland had two referenda in two years. In the first the Scottish people voted narrowly to remain part of the United Kingdom, in the second they voted heavily to remain part of the European Union. The two results are now incompatible. So how did the referenda help to set the legitimate course of political action? They did not.
There is another incompatible referendum which has gone virtually unmentioned in the UK. Following the Good Friday agreement, Ireland had a referendum in 1998 to amend its constitution to allow it to subscribe to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Ireland amended its constitution to remove its unfettered claim to its entire historic territory, in favour of a contingent peaceful process. Mutual EU membership and no border control was absolutely intrinsic to that agreement and to what the Irish voted for in their referendum. The vote, incidentally, was by much the same margin as Scotland’s vote to remain in the EU. So in resiling from its EU accession due to its referendum, the UK is negating referendum votes in Scotland, in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. The UK cannot arrogantly claim its referendum is more important than Ireland’s. The famous “backstop” is to maintain at least the shadow of the arrangements on the basis of which Ireland voted in 1998.
The other reason referenda are not useful is they are insufficiently detailed. The Brexit referendum said nothing whatsoever about the UK’s continued relationship with the EU. It said nothing about the Customs Union, about EEA, or even about freedom of movement. The referendum was called by David Cameron to buy off party splits in the Tory Party, but failed spectacularly even on those sordid terms. as someone who wants the UK to fall apart, personally I am enjoying the chaos, but it was not the planned result by those behind the referendum.
I am probably a horrible elitist. I dislike direct democracy and am quite profoundly Burkean. I believe democracy should work through the people electing representatives they trust, to use their judgement and experience and adaptability to make the decisions of government. This is not a popular position given the appalling calibre of politicians currently. That is partly due to the UK’s antiquated electoral and governance systems; but something else is in play as it appears to be a worldwide phenomenon. It is to do with neoliberalism eating away at societal bonds and institutions, and requires a great deal more thought to delineate. But of one thing I am quite sure: referenda are not the answer to the West’s malaise of government.