Referendum: Policy stuck in binaries

The promise of a referendum was certainly not a game-changer.

Are referendums a cop-out? The question is obviously being raised in the context and the aftermath of Brexit: the British referendum to stay in or leave the European Union. As is well known, the June 23 verdict was in favour of exiting the EU. The outcome has caused a series of tectonic shifts in British politics, particularly in the ruling Conservative Party, with Prime Minister David Cameron resigning and a familiar succession battle afoot.

The Brexit storm has resulted in strong emotions. There are those who have railed against “too much democracy” and called for “protecting democracy from democracy”. Brexit opponents have asked for a second referendum, or even a third after a few years. Brexit supporters have spoken of the referendum representing the true will of the people and of the resurgence of nationalism, nativism and conservativism. As is usual, a mandate, particularly a deeply contested one, is being opened up to all sorts of interpretations and hobby horses.

As somebody who is a Brexit agnostic — having no real dog in the fight, irrespective of whether Britain stays in EU or does not — this writer is nevertheless certain now that referendums, much acclaimed and praised before and after June 23 (but by different people) as organic representations of direct democracy, are actually a flawed construct. This is particularly so if a referendum is being used to decide upon everyday policy or take a decision that should be in the ambit of regular governance. Governance cannot be outsourced to people, when people themselves have elected a government and outsourced running the country to a party, a leader or a team that they believe knows and understands the issues best.

Mr Cameron won a big election only a year ago. At the fag end of the campaign, worried that the far-right was chasing him, he panicked and promised a referendum on EU membership. In the end, it didn’t matter. He won a substantial majority as voters plumped for continuity, taking heart from a gradual economic recovery in the United Kingdom. The promise of a referendum was certainly not a game-changer. This made Mr Cameron all the more confident that his side — the “Remain” camp — would win a referendum. As it happened, an emotional campaign went the other way.

Irrespective of the result — and this writer iterates he is neither opposed to nor supportive of Brexit, and does not believe Brexit voters are xenophobes or Brexit backers are angels — the scepticism about referendums remains. It was not for Mr Cameron to promise a referendum; indeed, if he so believed in the “Remain” argument, he could have made staying on in EU part of his platform at the time of the general election and announced it was one of many issues on which voters would judge him.

By their nature, referendums are divisive. There is nothing morally superior about a referendum; and a (perhaps second) referendum that has the British people voting to stay on in the EU will not be ethically more elevated than the June 23 Brexit vote, not at all. Yet, elections are a leavening process, where a number of parameters — local and national, candidate and party, economy and culture, instinct and pragmatism — come together to define the voter’s choice. When the voter chooses, a mix of these factors moderates his baser instincts. He chooses after giving weightage — and every individual has a different weightage calculation — to a variety of factors. In the end, he convinces at least himself that he has made a rational choice.

A referendum or a plebiscite is different. Rather than bring a multitude of subjects into the voter’s mind, they reduce his thinking to a binary: yes or no; with X or against X. Should the religion of the majority be the state religion or should it not? Should we sell all public sector companies or should we not? Should the Taj Mahal be the national symbol or should the ruins of Hampi? Should we stay in EU or should we leave? Each of those questions can easily be converted from an economic analysis or even an aesthetic reckoning to a defining debate on identity, on a primordial impulse, and on an “us versus them” measure.

Now all of this can happen in an election too, and has happened in numerous elections. Yet, it is tempered by two factors. First, different voters have different primordial impulses and make-or-break issues. Second, an individual voter himself could find other factors influencing or shaping his primordial impulse, even if not always managing to reduce its primacy in his voting decision.

Ultimately, people elect a government that they believe knows best. It is the government’s job to use its expertise, superior knowledge and cornucopia of information to make a reasoned choice and to decide on which economic policy to pursue, which treaty to sign or tear up, which war to join or avoid. If the people feel the government has erred, they have an election at the end of its term to tell it what they think. It is not for the government to keep going back to the people for a consultation on a matter of nuance and detail, with a range of pros and cons, which a plebiscite will confine to a black-and-white framework, bereft of all subtlety.

It is here that Mr Cameron faltered. History will judge him poorly. It will judge poorly even if Brexit serves the British economy and nation well in the long run. The question is not of choice; it is of the manner of choice.

( Source : Columnist )
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