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Izzy Rounds

14.11.14

Should referendums be more widely used in the UK?


Referendums are a type of direct democracy used in Britain that involve the public directly voting on
a single issue in order to make a political decision. This essay will argue that referendums shouldnt
be more widely used in the UK.
Many may argue that referendums should be more widely used in the UK because they are a pure
form of direct democracy originating from Ancient Greece; they allow the people to rule and make
decisions for themselves. A recent example of this is the 2014 referendum on Scottish
independence, which allowed Scotlands people to choose whether they wanted to remain part of
the UK. However, according to the British constitution and the doctrine of parliamentary
sovereignty, referendums cannot be binding. So, in theory, if the result of this referendum had been
yes, David Cameron has the authority to go against itno matter how unlikely Cameron actually
doing this is. Even if the people vote with an overwhelming majority on an issue, parliament always
has the authority to overrule the referendums result thus making them much less useful a tool in
democracy and wider use of them much less advisable.
Others might insist that higher usage of referendums would improve political participation in Britain,
as is the case in California, where citizen-initiated referendums (or propositions as there are
known in the US) are held regularly to help make political decisions in the state. A key piece of
evidence supporting this argument is the huge turnout for the Scottish referendum last September
of 85%. However, many call this high figure an anomaly: previous referendums, such as the 2011
vote on the AV voting system only had a turnout of 42%, and the Welsh Assembly vote earlier that
year was even lower, at 36%. This raises the complex political question of whether or not a result is
even valid if less than 50% of people vote, implying a wider use of referendums wouldnt be
beneficial to the UK because their potentially low turnouts would provide illegitimate results. In
addition, allowing everyone in Britain to vote on a range of topics may sound appealing on the
surface but it only enables huge numbers of politically uneducated people to make important
decisions about a country. This has shown to be disastrous in the past, as California has shown many
contradictions in its referendums; its people voted to legalise gay marriage followed by a vote that
wished to ban it 4 years later, and caused its government to go bankrupt by simultaneously asking it
to increase spending and cut taxes. These examples prove that in some situations, the public just
arent suited to make decisions the way that experienced politicians are, showing that an increase in
referendums could be harmful to the UK if it allowed bad decisions to be made.
Some could suggest that an increase in referendums would reduce government power, as they
provide a much needed check on the government by limiting its control on the issue that the
referendum is centred on. This is contrary to parliament where, particularly in the House of
Commons, government is often able to manipulate the vote, for example via the party whips, in their
favour. This would in theory protect citizens from an over-mighty, or over-powerful government
however in practise, this isnt the case. Governments have incredible power over referendums:
theyre able to choose whether or not a referendum is held, as well as when, what its held on, and
which side gets the more popular yes vote. Also, the result of a referendum can be manipulated
just as easily as the result of a vote in the House of Commons as the government has control over
the publicity campaign and can phrase the question themselves. An example of this is the Scottish
referendum, where Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, announced it following a summer

Izzy Rounds

14.11.14

of the Ryder Cup and the Commonwealth Games, knowing it would improve his chances of a yes
vote to leave Scotland. He also tried to fix the question, so blatantly in fact that David Cameron
ordered it be rephrased before he permitted it at all. This evidence highlights the power
governments have over referendums, disregarding any argument that a more frequent use of them
would limit government powerin fact, in some ways, implying it would be strengthened.
Finally, it could be said that referendums should be used more for changes to the British
constitution. This is because constitutional rules affect the way a country is governed, making them
superior to ordinary laws and thus its more important to gain popular consensus on their
amendments. Plus, a referendum guarantees democratic legitimacy with any newly created body.
However, referendums may only provide a snapshot of public opinion at one point in time, making
them an unreliable guide for public interest. An example of how public opinion can change over time
is the 19 year gap between a no vote on Welsh and Scottish devolution and a yes vote, with the
referendum in 1978 failing, but passing in 1997. This unreliability makes referendums particularly
inappropriate in cases of constitutional change because the result doesnt reflect the permanent
nature of the constitution, meaning an increased dependence on referendums when looking to
reform the constitution would be unwise.
In conclusion, although referendums are a great way to educate and involve the public in political
matters, and are arguably the only pure, true form of democracy still existing in modern day Britain,
wider use of them would be simply irresponsible. Representative democracy is a system that hires
experts to make the crucial decisions in government needed to run the country effectively, and the
public as a whole are undeniably worse informed on political affairs. Also, their decisions may be
unreliable as well as ill-informed; they could only reflect the viewpoint of a specific time period,
making them a bad basis for implementing permanent laws. And, overriding all of this, is the lack of
authority referendums hold: government has impressive control over each referendum giving them
heavy influence on the result, and parliamentary sovereignty means these results dont even have to
be acknowledged by parliament.