- Alan Smith questions the wisdom of referenda
The question of our relations with the free countries of Europe has bedevilled British politics for the last 60 years or so. Initially this applied only to Western Europe but, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, this has applied to the former Soviet satellites as well.
Future historians may wonder how the development of policy towards Europe represented the opinions of the people. Normal practice in the United Kingdom as a parliamentary democracy has been two-fold: sometimes, a change has been put through Parliament that has been so popular in the country that there has been no attempt at subsequent general elections for a reasonable period to reverse the change; on other occasions, a proposed change has been seen to be controversial and made one of the major topics at a general election. In either case the action of Parliament was in accordance with popular opinion at the time.
The abolition of the Corn Laws by Sir Robert Peel’s government in the 1840s, splitting the Conservative Party and passing only with opposition support, was not contested at subsequent general elections. In the medium term, one consequence was the recession in British agriculture in the 1860s. Canadian agriculture experienced similar problems, having previously enjoyed imperial preference over the United States. Later the Conservative government fought the election of 1906 on Tariff Reform, but lost it. Only in the world economic crisis of the 1930s was a measure of protection restored. A long-term consequence of the abolition of the Corn Laws was the fact that the United Kingdom had to fight two World Wars in the twentieth century, importing food against hostile submarine fleets. In retrospect, an alternative might have been for the government to subsidize the provision of cheap or free food, particularly in the case of Ireland, where there could also have been the suspension of rents payable on agricultural land that was not producing food during the potato blight. But the government of the time, like all people at all times, was bound by the dominant economic theories of their day.
The Heath government (1970–74) took the United Kingdom into the Common Market. The Conservative Manifesto in 1970 had undertaken to negotiate membership, no more and no less, and both major parties were split on the issue: the Conservative victory could not be represented as a popular endorsement of the policy. In retrospect, it might have been better in the long run for a general election to have been fought on the question of the Common Market. The Labour government elected in February 1974 under Harold Wilson negotiated some small concessions which they put to a referendum in 1975, but as neither major party was committed to leaving the Common Market there was not much point in voting against continued membership. It was only the brief emergence of the Referendum Party in the 1990s that raised the question of a referendum on leaving the EU. At the 2015 general election, following five years of a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, the Conservatives under David Cameron promised a referendum on continued membership of the EU, possibly calculating that it would increase their share of the vote without their actually having to carry out their pledge. The fact that, during the referendum campaign, some members of the government said that if we voted to leave we would all be doomed, raised the obvious question: ‘Why did you ask us, then?’
Now we have a constitutional crisis. Which takes precedence, the referendum result of 2016 which produced a majority for leaving the EU or the general election of 2017 which produced a majority of MPs who wanted to stay in the EU, even though Parliament voted to initiate the departure? Some MPs who wanted to remain in the EU want a second referendum although none wanted a referendum when various governments passed laws to commit us more and more to Europe. Perhaps the answer would be to hold a general election and a second referendum on the same day, providing a reasonable chance that the popular vote and the views of MPs on EU membership would be aligned.
Representative democracy balances the power of people, their representatives, and government. The expression from physics of a ‘triangle of forces’ comes to mind, analogous to the game of ‘knife, paper, stone’: the government control the people through laws; the people control their representatives through elections; and their representatives control the government through votes in the House of Commons. We should eschew referendums as methods of making decisions on major subjects, particularly those which require the approval of foreign states and, at the same time, ensure that such major subjects are submitted to one-issue general elections.