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Hansard Society sponsored meeting, House of Commons, 17th June 2008
Referendums: What are they good for (1)
For list of speakers and introduction see Announcement below

COMMENTS BY Dr. Michael Macpherson
I&R ~ GB

Some reported remarks are taken from Lord Norton’s blog (2) at the House of Lords

Clare Short made two very important points, firstly favouring  “the idea of popular initiative, allowing citizens to trigger referendums and secondly “that referendums are an essential tool to be used to help reinvigorate an alienated public dissatisfied with current political arrangements that they often feel are damaging British democracy.”

By pointing to initiative and referendum (I and R) Ms. Short clarifies and corrects this Hansard Society debate about referendum in a most helpful manner. The other speakers, except perhaps C. Huhne, appear to have given little consideration to the essential difference between plebiscite imposed by an authority on the one hand, and proposal plus referendum demanded and pushed through by a large number of citizens on the other. As well as allowing correction of government in the periods between elections (with the “brake” of veto referendum), I and R allow creative proposals to be filtered and then pushed onto the public agenda for information and debate.

For Dr David Butler “referendums had a part to play on issues of ethical importance and boarder disputes, but could not deal with the often complicated nature of political debate”.

In his opinion that electorates cannot deal with “complicated” public affairs he ignores much contrary evidence. Research with randomly selected groups of citizens has shown that if supplied with information and opportunity to debate then most people can grasp political issues. More importantly here, “real life” experience of referenda has shown that citizens with access to direct democracy learn to grapple with complexity and that on featured issues they may become better informed than members of parliament (e.g. Denmark at the time of the referendum about the Maastricht treaty). Presumably, amusingly you misreport Dr. Butler in the matter of “boarder disputes” – was this about  democracy in his prep-school?

Steve Richards (The Independent Newspaper) said that  parties have promised (referenda) as a way of avoiding debate, especially within their own ranks. We can add that governments have promised referenda as a way to win votes, only to later refuse for reasons of their own, recently about our electoral system, the Euro currency and the EU constitution. Referenda in which the government of the day writes the questions, makes the rules and sets the timing can often serve to harm democracy. For these reasons we propose that referenda should usually be initiated by an agreed large number of voters, citizen-initiated referenda, rather than by a ruling authority.

We welcome support for Swiss-style citizens’ democracy expressed by the senior Lib-Dem politician Chris Huhne. Presumably in his Party he is in a minority. In 2001 the Lib-Dem manifesto contained a promise to introduce citizens’ initiative referendum. Perhaps sniffing some electoral success, the Party dropped this promise from their 2005 manifesto and subsequently did little to promote this vital and publicly desired reform. Huhne expresses concern about inconsistent ballot results in the USA. Recent research has shown that this sort of problem is very rare and that criticism of the majority decision on Proposition 13 (about property taxes in California) was wildly exaggerated. In any event, with the more deliberative democratic methods to be found in Europe, ill-considered plebiscite decisions are even less likely. (Compare the broad proposal of I&R ~GB and several recent proposals of other groups based in UK (3)).

References, background

Citizens’ direct democracy:
Debate and News

1. Referendums: What are they good for


3. Preliminary Proposals for the introduction of Elements of Direct Democracy in Great Britain and Northern Ireland


Referendums: What are they good for?
Tuesday 17 June, 6.45 - 7.45pm, House of Commons

Dr David Butler, Oxford University, David Curry MP, Chris Huhne MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Steve Richards, The Independent, Rt Hon Clare Short MP.

Chair - Virginia Gibbons, Hansard Society

This meeting will discuss the highly topical issue of the role of referendums in the British political system. Can they be used in a representative Parliamentary democracy without usurping the power of our elected representatives? What issues are appropriate to be put to a referendum? How can we ensure that referendum outcomes are not skewed by political or financial resources?
Background materials suggested by I&R ~GB:
Butler, David & Ranney, Austin (eds.), Referendums around the world: the growing use of direct democracy. (Macmillan, 1994)

Macpherson, Michael J., Citizens’ initiative and referendum in Britain and Northern Ireland 2007: Prospects for reform

Qvortrup, Mads Supply-side politics. Centre for Policy Studies 2007.

House of Commons Library: Citizens’ Initiatives Standard Note: SN/PC/04483 Last updated: 1 May 2008 Author: Lucinda Maer, Parliament and Constitution Centre.

With compliments from
I&R ~ GB Citizens' Initiative and Referendum
Campaign for direct democracy in Britain