Referendums split panel at Hansard Society debate
The Hansard Society was fortunate enough to be joined by a panel of high profile speakers; Dr David Butler, Chris Huhne MP, Rt Hon David Curry MP, Rt Hon Clare Short MP and Steve Richards at it's recent debate entitled Referendums: What are they good for? This meeting covered the issue of referendums and whether (or how) they could be appropriately used in the British political system.
Conservative MP David Curry opened the proceedings by stating that he believed referendums were the ‘landfill site of democracy’ - in his opinion a referendum does not answer the question proposed, but only panders to wider fears that the public hold. For him, a public vote on a single issue represents a challenge to the sovereignty of Parliament and could not be seen as legitimate because of the often low voter turn out. However he did conceed that referendums could have a role to play at local level.
Next, academic Dr David Butler gave a more measured account of the debate surrounding referendums. He pointed out that most countries have used referendums at one time or another but at least five hundred of these have been undertaken by Switzerland. For Dr 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. His conclusion on the matter was that he felt it is better to be governed by informed politicians than an ‘impatient low turn out public’.
Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne appreciated the part that referendums can play in politics as part of a varied political tool kit. He cautioned against the contradictions that can be thrown up when the public vote on single issues, citing the case of proposition thirteen in the state of California. Mr Huhne did suggest that referendums could be effectively used as a safe guard on constitutional matters for example, to hold the House of Commons to account by way of a public vote on legislation that has been passed after a cooling off period.
Next to speak was Independent MP Clare Short who appeared to be the most pro-referendum voice amongst the panel. She pointed out that we talk about referendums like they are not already part of our political setup - a mistake as public votes have helped to shape the British politics on a range of important issues like the European Union and the future of Northern Ireland. For Ms Short, 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. She highlighted examples like the Iraq War protests to illustrate that people believe that they no longer have a voice that political elites listen to. A referendum could possibly be a way of reconnecting the public with important political debates.
Last to address the audience was The Independent’s Steve Richards. For Mr Richard, referendums do not resolve political problems but instead undermine the opportunity for important debates to take place. He highlighted the fact that the 1975 vote on Europe had solved nothing, as Britain's relationship with Europe was still very much on the political agenda. He highlighted that Government's are able to use referendums as a way of sidestepping debates on important and contraversial issues for example, Tony Blair promised a number of referendums on issues such as electoral reform so that discussion could be held off until a more convenient time.
Issues raised by the audience included; whether referendums should be initiated by the public rather than the legislature, and whether unequal access to money or media influence could skew the outcome. The panel was also asked what issue it would choose to have a referendum on, with all but David Butler wanting one on electoral reform.
For Lord Norton's take on this debate please visit the Lords of the Blog