Posted by Mad Mitch on  UTC 2015-10-13 11:26 Updated on UTC 2016-02-05

A referendum on staying in the Common Market, the first referendum in British history, was held in 1975. It was a sticking plaster that covered the divisions in the then ruling Labour party. It saved the party from collapse. There was not the slightest trace of idealism or democratic accountability in that decision: it was pure Realpolitik. The 'stay-in' faction won convincingly with 67.23% to 32.77%. At that time few saw the Common Market as the first stage of a huge project of European economic and political integration. The voices of those who did seem to have counted for little with voters.

Ever since then, treaty has followed treaty in the pursuit of European integration. During this time all three major political parties supported Britain's membership of the European Union, as it called itself after the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Those who opposed the movement towards a single European state and the restrictions of the sovereignty of the UK that flowed from it had no political home.

The normal channels of political activity being blocked by cross-party consensus, political impotence led the opponents of Britain's participation in the EU project to attempt to bypass the three-party parliamentary process by calling for a referendum on Britain's continued membership.

Forty years after the first referendum on the Common Market the United Kingdom government is currently committed to holding a referendum on whether to leave or to stay in the European Union. This concession was forced by the threat of critical losses at the ballot box that might be brought about by the UK Independence Party.

The meaty bone has been thrown over the fence and the scrapyard dogs are already fighting over it. The dogs are enjoying themselves too much, so it is probably too late now to stop this process (see hopeless causes). But, if only just for the record, there are many reasons why referendums are not the way to solve political issues like this.

Close calls: the illegitimacy zone

A referendum is only useful when the winning side obtains between 60% and 70% of the votes cast. With 60% and over the winner attains not just a clear numerical superiority but also a clear political legitimacy. A result of 65:35 has to be accepted as a clear victory by both parties. However, for results between 60% and 50% there may still be a numerical superiority but the political legitimacy of the win decreases rapidly.

A split of 55:45 is no triumph: nearly half the electorate has rejected the winning solution and as a result the winner would be well advised to show magnanimity and political wisdom by seeking some compromise in implementing the measure in question. However, a split of 52:48 has entered the illegitimacy zone. In the illegitimacy zone the numerical superiority is meaningless because there is no solid political legitimacy to the win: totally dismissing the votes and wishes of people who only failed to win by a small percentage of the votes may be mathematically correct but it is obviously politically unjust.

The importance of the issue and the size of the illegitimacy zone

The exact extent of the illegitimacy zone depends largely on the importance of the issue and the strength of feeling associated with it. In a referendum on whether to transform a few streets in a city centre into a pedestrians-only area that delivered a 51:49 result, the losers will probably shrug their shoulders and accept their loss in the spirit of a coin toss. The illegitimacy zone is therefore very small. Even on relatively trivial issues, though, a very close result can be administratively embarrassing.

In Switzerland in 2015 a national referendum to decide whether to take the broadcasting licence fee, currently individually raised, from general taxation produced a result of 50.1:49.9 - A numerical majority (actually 50.08%) but no political mandate for doing anything. No government can decide to ignore the democratically expressed wishes of 49.9% of its electorate. As media sources in Switzerland noted when the vote was announced, this was just the start of the debate. A close call referendum never decides anything.

In contrast, in a referendum on an important issue such as the recent referendum in Scotland, 'Should Scotland be an independent country?' held in 2014, with strongly held views on both sides, the illegitimacy zone is very broad. With a result of 55.3:44.7 does anyone believe that the referendum permanently settled this issue and that the wishes of nearly 45% of the population, 1,617,989 people, can be ignored? Important decisions stretch the illegitimacy zone - meaning that nothing is really decided. The referendum turns into an expensive opinion poll with the same non-existent legitimacy. Furthermore, because of the broader illegitimacy zone, it is much more likely that a referendum result on an important topic will end up in this territory and fail to achieve a compelling decision.

Just for completeness: The pointlessness zone

And what of the opposite case, when one side in a referendum wins more than 70% of the vote? In such circumstances the question arises: if the decision was so clear it was certainly obvious in advance, in which case, why bother with the cost and effort of a referendum at all? The Alternative Vote referendum in Britain in 2011 is an example of this problem. With a vote split of 32.1:67.9 and a turnout of 42.2%, people were quite justified after the fact in asking 'what was all that about?'

The costs of running an isolated referendum can be very high in a country such as Britain, certainly in the scores of millions of pounds. The AV referendum was a political expediency arising from the coalition government and the £75 million or so it cost to run were the price of political peace. In Switzerland, in contrast, referendums are held as a routine every quarter and a large number of issues of national, cantonal and local importance are decided at once. Massive victories do happen there, but much more cheaply.

Digital decisions: no compromise possible

Superficially, a referendum seems an appropriate way of letting the entire electorate decide on major issues independently of party tribalism. This was surely the thiinking behind the first calls for a referendum on EU membership in the 1990s. The problem here is that major issues may be able to be expressed by a digital, yes-no choice, but they are at heart so complex and nuanced that the digital question is a perversion of the real issues.

In contrast, in Switzerland, the home of quarterly voting, referendums work best when they do not represent once-and-for-all choices on major issues. For example, a town or canton may have a referendum to vote to allocate the money for the construction of a new sports centre. Where such measures have been well thought through, where the political ground has already been prepared and the projects soundly and realistically costed, such measures may gain immediate approval from the taxpayers who, after all, are going to have to pay for the project. But if the local electorate believes that the project is unnecessary, badly conceived, overpriced, etc. or that the local authority has already too much debt and taxes are too high, such proposals will often be voted down.

In cases where the electorate has turned down the project by a massive majority the project is politically dead in the water. Where rejection has been temperate, or acceptance has been very tentative the project can be looked at again. What did voters object to? The price? The Olympic sized swimming pool? The noise and pollution from a go-kart track? If the project is important, the referendum leads to a political process that will take into account objections and perhaps ultimately make it palatable to a good majority of voters. The project in a modified form may be put to the vote in a referendum several times. The referendum is thus part of a political process.

Not the right answer

Irrespective of the size of the majority the winning side obtains, there is always the risk that the result effectively sabotages the political process. A referendum in which one of the results represents a political earthquake or even a small deviation from acceptable political process is a form of political dice rolling.

In November 2010 the electorate in Switzerland voted 52.9:47.1 to deport foreigners ('black sheep') who commit a serious crime. For the government of Switzerland this result was a nightmare, since its implementation would break many procedural treaties with other countries and, worst of all, violate Switzerland's international legal obligations. Five years later, the result has been kicked into the political long grass and Swiss politicians are still technically obliged to implement an unimplementable law. Because of this problem another referendum has now been launched and will be held in February 2016 to force the full implementation of the preceding referendum.


Implementation initiative for the expulsion of criminal foreigners. Implement the will of the people!

For a British example of such a case let us suppose, for example, that instead of Britain having a referendum on the subject of EU membership, it was to have a referendum that set a low quota on immigration from all sources, with a few exceptions for exceptionally qualified people. This solution is not unusual: Switzerland had such a system for many years until it signed up to an EU freedom of movement treaty. If that referendum were to be accepted then it would effectively mean an EU exit, since the EU can be assumed to be immobile on the issue of free movement. In the current climate there is a good probability that the referendum would be accepted. Politically the alternative, unrestricted immigration, would be difficult to argue. Any alternative quota suggestion would mean the result could never be implemented. The UK government would be in the same position as the Swiss government with its 'black sheep' referendum: how could it possibly implement this measure?

Until the twelfth of never

The normal political horizon of how far the electorate is prepared to look into the future is limited to a few years; some would even say that it is limited to a permanent present. This limitation is wise: no one foresaw the great changes in British society in the last 50 years and no voter voted on them because no one was asked to. Many of the greatest changes have been technological and beyond direct political control: the growth of mobility, the expansion and diversification of mass media, the coming of the mobile phone, the internet, the smartphone and social media. Be honest: how much of today's world would you have foreseen in 1975?

It is a constitutional tradition in Britain that no parliament can bind its successor. This means that the maximum political horizon is five years. Even measures such as the 2008 Climate Change Act, which legislated for changes that will have major long term impacts for half a century or more, can be overthrown and reversed. By 2015 the provisions of the act are appearing to be more and more unsustainable. In political terms, flexibility is the key to coping with social and technological change.

The issues behind Britain's membership of the EU are not only extremely complex and nuanced, they are extremely far-reaching. Does anyone doubt that a 'stay in' vote will ultimately lead through ever closer integration to a total loss of sovereignty for the parliament of the UK? The country will become at best a vassal state (which some maintain is already the case) and at worst an administrative region. Does anyone doubt that a 'leave' vote will result in a long process of disentanglement from European and a parallel re-entaglement in international treaties?

Voting on issues, not parties or people.

In Britain, since the beginnings of mass immigration in the fifties, no one has ever been asked to vote directly on immigration. No one has ever been asked to vote on planning issues, infrastructure such as roads and railways, the National Health Service, and so on. Britain has participated in a number of foreign wars with loss of lives and the loss of large amounts of money without requiring any direct mandate from the electorate. Voters have been asked to place their trust in party and member of parliament to take care of the particular bundle of issues that suits their appetite. The electorate votes for people and parties, not for issues. That's why the contenders in the EU referendum are currently scrabbling to find figureheads and high-profile people to be part of their campaign. The complex issues in this referendum are secondary to the people proposing them. The referendum cannot be won on issues.

So, summing up, the proposed British referendum on membership of the EU is completely misbegotten.

  • Because the result is so important, the winner will require a large majority to achieve political legitimacy. Be careful what you wish for: if the result of the new referendum is 'stay in' then the prospect of a future disentaglement of the UK from the EU will probably be ruled out for ever. A result of 'leave' would need a sizeable majority to be ever put into effect.
  • Because of this the referendum is likely to lead to a result that lacks political legitimacy, one which the losers will never accept. If the majority is small, will the result ever be implemented?
  • The issue is too big. Voters cannot be expected to reduce such complex decisions to a simple stay or leave decision. Voters elect parties and people to take these decisions. Asking the electorate a question over which even specialists are divided is just dice-rolling in the hope of political advantage.
  • Referendums are in their nature unsuitable for taking political decisions with immense temporal scope. Even experts have no idea what will happen in two years, let alone five years.
  • Instead of a political process to resolve all these problems, on one referendum day in the near future a coin will be tossed in the air and will land, for some unfathomable reason, on one side or the other, or perhaps even on its edge.

The referendum in 1975 didn't work in achieving a departure from the Common Market at a time when the entanglements with the UK were immeasurably fewer than they are today. Why will a referendum work now?

Update 04.02.2016

How to neuter a referendum campaign: throw a large bone into the scrapyard and watch the dogs fight over it (04.02.2016).
The winner will be given the same amount of airtime as the rival In campaign, as well as an estimated £7 million from the public purse to deliver leaflets to 25 million homes.
Andrew Pierce: How rank amateurism, jealousies and petty hatreds are tearing apart the rival 'Out' camps.

Update 05.02.2016

Peter Hitchens is also unimpressed by the coming EU referendum (04.02.2016):
If there were a real desire in this country to leave, then there would be a serious political party which had that purpose at the centre of its manifesto, and was capable of winning a Commons majority. No such thing is in prospect. I still plan to stay at home on Referendum Day. I don’t wish to endorse or in any way contribute to this futile exercise in fake people power, whose result will be used to proclaim, for years to come, that the issue is now closed.
Peter Hitchens: Why I won't be Voting on Referendum Day.

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