Britain’s experience of direct democracy by means of referendum has not so far been very happy. The first referendum ever held in Britain was in 1975, and also concerned its (then recent) membership of the then European Economic Community. The result was a decisive vote in favour of remaining, by two thirds of the votes cast; however, because of the high rate of abstention, this represented only 44.44 per cent of the population eligible to vote.
Of historical interest is the fact that Scotland was considerably less enthusiastic about membership of the EEC than England: 68.7 per cent in favour in England and 58.5 per cent in Scotland, which had the only two regions to vote against membership, in one case by three quarters of the vote. They were areas that had been economically dependent on fishing, and were only too aware that, in an act of stupidity only too frequent among the British post-war political class, Britain had given away the right, in its negotiations to join the EEC, to exclusive rights to fish its own waters. Britain, though an island with a very long coastline, now imports twice as much fish as it exports, and catches half of what it caught in 1970.
The British government, which was in favour of remaining, lied to people. The main argument of those who wished to leave was that remaining would destroy British sovereignty and therefore parliamentary democracy itself. The government distributed a pamphlet to every household in which it claimed, inter alia:
No important new policy can be decided by Brussels or anywhere else without the consent of a British Minister answerable to a British Government and British Parliament.
But it must have known that the EEC was never intended to be merely a free-trade area (or rather customs union), and that it was, from the very first, a political project more than an economic one, economics always being secondary to politics.
The falsity of the claims in the government’s pamphlet was soon evident, but there was no demand for another referendum. A politician on the far-left of the Labour Party, Anthony Wedgwood-Benn, who was opposed to membership of the EEC precisely on the grounds of loss of sovereignty and therefore of democracy, said after the results were known:
When the British people speak, everyone, including members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision, and that’s certainly the spirit in which I accept the results of this referendum.
British membership of the EEC, then, continued on a foundation of false promises by British leaders. Of course, we cannot know to what extent the lies influenced the vote: maybe, even without them, the vote would have been the same. We can never know.
Since then we have had two referenda in which the entire electorate of the United Kingdom has taken part, the first on our voting system and the second was the recent referendum on membership of the European Union. The most important local referendum was that concerning Scottish independence, held in 2014. So far, these attempts at direct democracy, alien to British tradition, cannot be said to have brought much in the way of wisdom and enlightenment, let alone happiness.
The referendum on the British voting system asked whether voters wanted to retain the first-past-the-post system, according to which the candidate in each constituency who gained the most votes would be elected, even if it were overall a minority of the votes, or whether they preferred to go over to proportional representation. There were good arguments on both sides: the first-past-the-post system reducing the possibility of constant coalition governments with small parties holding the country to ransom, the proportional representation system preventing a minority from the excessive exercise of power.
The first-past-the-post system worked well so long as there were two overwhelmingly important parties, as there were until recently. But with the fracturing of the political scene, it became blatantly unsatisfactory, though advantageous to some. For example, in the 2015 general election, the Scottish National Party obtained 50 per cent of the votes cast (and, given the turnout of at the election, 35.5 per cent of the eligible population voted for it), but 91.5 of Scottish seats in Parliament — where Scotland was already somewhat over-represented by four or five seats. Needless to say, the Scottish National Party did not then complain of any lack of democratic legitimacy: like most politicians, they complain of it only when things run against them. In any case, it is rather curious that a nationalist party should be so strongly support membership of a union dedicated to the extinction of national sovereignty.
I now think that I voted the wrong way in this referendum, in favour of the first-past-the-post system, thinking of the past rather than of the present situation.
The referendum of remaining or leaving the European Union was, in the words of the Duke of Wellington about the Battle of Waterloo, a damned close run thing. It could have gone either way. It gave a result that was clear without being overwhelming. It exposed social and geographic divisions that were probably better-hidden. And it exposed those with only a skin-deep commitment to majority rule, for those who lost soon claimed that those who voted the other way were uneducated, ignorant, xenophobic and racist, whose votes therefore did not really count. Moreover, just 37.5 per cent of the eligible population (a slightly higher proportion than that which voted for the Scots nationalists in the general election) voted for so a momentous decision. But to object to the results of a referendum only after the results are known, and not to the referendum as a method of deciding a question, is to show utter contempt for those who voted the other way. There a few better methods of sowing social discord – which we may yet reap.
The referendum on Scottish independence excluded Scots living in England, who represent about an eighth of the total population of people born in Scotland with British citizenship. Most of them would probably be opposed to independence; there are enough of them to make a difference to the outcome. (They are counterbalanced, but not entirely, by the English living in Scotland, who could in theory be excluded from the vote.)
At any rate, this gives rise to an insoluble dilemma. If Scots living in England are not given the vote, it means in effect that they have lost their Scottishness by living out of Scotland. If the English living in Scotland are not given the vote, than others of non-Scottish origin would have to be denied the vote – unless, of course, the English are specifically discriminated against, which some might like.
But in either case, what then of the Scots nationalists’ claims to be open-minded and not bigoted, like those who voted to leave the European Union (a third of their countrymen, incidentally)?
There is yet another British example of the baleful effects of direct democracy: the decomposition of the British Labour party, still the most important opposition party. The party decided that, instead of electing its leader by poll among the party’s Members of Parliament, it would poll the members of the party directly to choose among MPs, on the grounds that it would be more democratic to do so. (It also allowed people to vote on-line who swore that they were in sympathy with the Labour Party, though not members of it, and paid $4.50.)
The result was all too predictable. A left-wing candidate, Mr Corbyn, was overwhelmingly elected, a man who never left 1970s student radicalism behind him, and who, though perfectly honourable in his way, was inept and not likely to appeal to the electorate. The parliamentary party recently passed a vote of no confidence in him but he refused to stand down because he argued, reasonably in the circumstances, that the members party had overwhelmingly voted for him.
The results so far of direct democracy in Britain are as follows: the possible break-up of the country by a ruthless and unscrupulous party, a country in which a considerable number of citizens have openly expressed their contempt for an even more considerable number of citizens, and both a non-functioning governing and opposition party. A magnificent achievement for a handful of referenda!