Evaluate the claim that the UK should increase its use of referendums (30)

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Whilst referendums can provide a mandate for constitutional change, helping to entrench and legitimise major changes, this essay will argue that referendums should not be more widely used as they undermine the sovereignty of parliament and simplify complex issues.

The source suggest that the use of referendums could “erode the sovereignty of parliament.” As the UK is a representative democracy we “elect representatives to make decisions on our behalf” and, as such, referendums are theoretically advisory in the UK as parliament is the supreme law making body and so only parliament can legislate to enact the outcome of a referendum. If the outcome of a referendum conflicts with the will of parliament this threatens to undermine the sovereignty of parliament by substituting the will of the people for the reasoned view of parliament. The current parliamentary gridlock over the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement is a symptom of this conflict. Whilst parliament voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50 there is no majority for any deal as many MPs have the view that that any deal agreed will be worse for the UK than the deal we currently have as members of the EU. If parliament were truly sovereign MPs would not feel bound as mere delegates, but would feel free to exercise their own judgement, even if this conflicted with the outcome of the referendum. Except in rare cases (e.g. Ken Clarke) this is not what is occurring, suggesting that referendums do undermine the sovereignty of parliament and should therefore be used less or not at all.

However, it could be argued that, far from undermining parliamentary sovereignty, referendums “complement parliamentary democracy,” providing a “strong popular mandate” and preventing “governments from making deeply unpopular decisions”. Again, this can be seen in the case of the EU referendum, where the government’s failure to deliver Brexit was punished in the European elections with the Brexit Party topping the poll by winning 31.6% of the vote. Arguably, the referendum result sent a clear signal to politicians that their failure to deliver on the outcome off the referendum would be punished at the next election, putting pressure on politicians to enact the clearly expressed will of the people. This is what referendums are supposed to do and it can be argued that it isn’t the referendum, as such, that is undermining parliament but the inability of our political class to deliver on the outcome. The referendum of 1974 settled our relationship with Europe for a generation, helping to “entrench” the change and “safeguard [the outcome] against repeal”. It can be argued that referendums play a vital role in our constitution; providing a mandate for major change and settling controversial issues. Referendums should therefore be used more, not less.

However, many would argue that the referendum result doesn’t represent the settled view of the people but is, rather, a “snapshot of the public’s opinion at one point in time”. Whilst many argue that the electorate may have changed their minds, suggesting there is a case for a second referendum, others would argue that the volatility of public opinion is a good reason to leave important decisions to our elected representatives, which will be able to reach a mature and considered view. In any case, the EU referendum is a rare example of politicians offering a referendum in a situation where they think they might lose. As the government controls “the actual wording and language used in the question… [and] the timing of the vote” governments tend to only offer referendums on issues where they think they can win. The AV referendum on 2011 was a good example of this, because, despite the apparent appetite for constitutional change in light of the expenses scandal of 2009, AV didn’t represent a stark change from the status quo and so it always seemed unlikely the public would not vote for this change. In most cases, therefore, referendums can be seen as rubber stamping exercises, applying a democratic fig leaf to decisions the government have already taken. Therefore, referendums should be used less often or not at all.

However, the capacity for referendums to “engage the electorate in live political debates” is an important argument to consider. A referendum campaign creates a space for an open public debate, where voters become better informed about the issues giving an opportunity for people to actively engage in the political process. The liberal thinker, John Stuart Mill argued that open public debate serves an important educative function, enabling people to become better citizens. For example, in the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 turnout was 84.59%, reflecting the high degree of political engagement amongst the people of Scotland, who became better informed as a result. This high level of engagement helped to “provide a strong mandate” on Scotland’s future in the union and should settle the question for the foreseeable future. Clearly, referendums can be very beneficial, suggesting that their greater use might improve democracy in the UK.

As our political class are “better informed than the general public” this suggests that the public might make a poor decision as they are ill-informed and are “too easily swayed by the media”. This can be seen in the EU referendum, where the leave campaign was supported by a majority of tabloid newspapers, many of which had criticised the EU for years on their front pages. A prominent example of this was the Daily Mail, which campaigned strongly for a leave vote whilst Paul Dacre was the editor, leading 66% of Mail readers to vote to leave compared to only 9% of Guardian readers. The claim that £350 million could be reclaimed from the EU to be spent on the NHS gained widespread traction during the campaign even though the claim was demonstrated to be false by fact-checking websites like FullFact.org. This suggests that the public can’t be trusted to reach a conclusion on an issue of this magnitude, especially when referendums have a tendency to “trivialise complex issues by oversimplifying them into a ‘yes’/’no’ vote’. Since the referendum it is clear that voters, politicians and pundits didn’t fully appreciate the trade-offs involved in leaving the EU and the difficulties that would be created by the Irish border. Complex decisions should be left to politicians, who have time to consider the issue in depth. Therefore, referendums should be used less.

However, although parliament is “given a popular mandate through regular free and fair elections,” it is clear that “parliament is not yet socially representative” of the rest of society, which undermines the view that parliament ought to make decisions on our behalf. Although parliament is becoming more representative, only 8% of MPs elected in 2017 were from BME backgrounds, only 32% were women and 29% went to private school. This poor descriptive representation undermines the legitimacy of parliament as it can’t claim to be “the microcosm that it should (and could) be”. If we really want to know what the public think, we should therefore follow the well-trodden path of our European neighbours and use referendums more often. After all, they “play an integral role in the democratic systems of several European countries including Switzerland, Italy and Belgium”.

It seems clear from the discussion that there is nothing inherently wrong-headed about the use of referendums, but the issue is more complex than whether we should be using them more or less. Clearly, there is a case for using them to legitimise major constitutional change, but they can cause more problems than they solve and so should be used with caution.