Clement Atlee, the British World War II Labour Party leader, and minister was once quoted by Margaret Thatcher, the conservative party leader of the 1970s and 1980s. They both agreed that referendums are ‘a device of dictators and demagogues’.
It’s not surprising that Atlee took that opinion in the middle of World War II, Britain was fighting Germany, led by Hitler who had legitimized his seizure of power by referendum. The Germans have learnt that lesson; nationwide referendums are now prohibited by the constitution in Germany.
In contrast, in neighboring Switzerland, which is mostly German-speaking, referendums are a regular occurrence, an accepted part of the political process. Also, referendums are very rare in the UK, they have only had three in their history, while they are a regular occurrence next door in Ireland, they’ve had more than one per year so far this century.
If you have been paying attention, you probably know that the most recent referendum in the UK, the Brexit referendum, is causing them particular difficulty. Britain, for the next week or two, is part of the EU. Two and a half years ago Britain voted to leave, they voted for Brexit. Or to be more precise, they voted against continuing their membership.
Therein lies the problem. Britain being in the EU was a known quantity, but people voted for an unknown. A whole host of contradictory and impossible promises were made by people campaigning to leave the EU. Different politicians, nominally allied to each other, promised that Britain would and would not leave the single market that allows all EU businesses to trade with each other without tariffs or regulatory barriers.
Different politicians – and sometimes the actual same individual politicians at different times – said that leaving the EU would and would not mean an end to the freedom of movement whereby citizens of any EU countries can study, work and settle in any other EU country. It seems to have come as a surprise to all of them that an end to this arrangement might cause problems for the two million British people who live in Spain, France and other EU countries.
Look out for votes in the British House of Commons this week to try to sort out exactly what leaving the EU means. There will be a series of votes, starting Wednesday evening UK time and lasting the rest of the week, with options ranging from delaying and perhaps scrapping the Brexit plan altogether, to accepting a deal negotiated by UK Prime Minister Theresa May which would essentially leave the UK with only slightly reduced access to the EU, in return for following the various rules of that club, rules that the UK now has no role in making, to perhaps doing what is called crashing out. This means essentially turning the UK into a sort of North Korea with no established trading rules with anywhere, and having to start that process from scratch.
Any one of those options could be viable, with enough time to prepare, but the bottom line is that in nearly three years the UK has not managed to decide which of those options to seek, so preparing for even one of them in less than three weeks seems optimistic, to say the least.
But my real point here is that established political practices work for a reason. The mess over Brexit happened because the UK is unfamiliar with holding referendums, and they haven’t really settled on a way of doing it. In particular, they don’t have any mechanism to prevent people from having the option of voting for something that is impractical, or even flat-out impossible.
Countries like Ireland and Switzerland, which regularly have referendums have developed mechanisms so that people are voting between two plausible, thought-out options. There is clarity on the result of either outcome, and on top of that, the electorate is familiar with the process. They know the result of their vote.
Stalin once said ‘Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the vote decide everything.’ Maybe, but in referendums, those who frame the question have power and responsibility, and if they get it wrong, it leads to all types of headaches.