UK Politics

Can Referendums Cause More Harm than Good?

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Referendums hold attraction as exercisers of direct democracy. They transform the public from political bystanders, who often feel excluded from the elite realm of debate to a mass of empowered individuals. For a moment, voters temporarily hold the political reigns of the country and engage with the wider political picture.

While that attraction is coupled with the fact that certain referendums, both in the UK and further afield, have often produced results I support, I find the concept problematic. To put it simply – why are we turning complex questions into divisive, binary ones? 

One factor at play is the harsh reality that we no longer have large, traditional parties dominating the political scene, and we certainly do not live in a time where voters generally have trust in parties to make decisions. Today, at least in the UK, voters are sceptical, and politics is fragmentary.

In turn, referendums are packaged up by politicians as an attempt to gain broad support for controversial decisions. Whatever the result, that choice is effectively ‘locked in’. It is not until later during the implementation, that the unpopular intricacies are understood. Is this all sounding a bit familiar? Yes, of course, Brexit…

In my eyes, the most problematic aspect of a referendum is the way it is presented. More and more, we are subject to ‘pig in a poke’ style referendums. Essentially, we are asked to choose between the known status-quo or a completely unspecified other. It’s like being asked, to ‘please sign here to let me buy your house, but don’t worry, I’ll let you know how much I’m paying after you’ve signed!’ 

Perhaps the best example of this nonsensical scenario is the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. It would be ignorant to deny there was not a desire shared amongst many for such a vote, but asking Scottish people to vote with the absence of the most fundamental information was democratically unsettling. The Scottish National Party presented two choices; the norm or the unknown. We were left with no plan for currency, no plan for the hugely important internal market, and no guarantee of being able to join the European Union but a distorted vision of our future reality.

These skewed realities are not unique to Scotland’s case. More often than not, voters are seduced with false promises based on fantastical, ideal outcomes rather than facts and negotiated terms. Combine these promises with a largely disengaged and uninformed general public, and we leave ourselves extremely vulnerable to outcomes based on false information. 

The decisive nature of the questions themselves entices campaigners to use every argument at their disposal, appeal to emotions and entrench deeper divisions across the population. 

As a Scot who was sold a ‘once in a generation referendum’ back in 2014, it is painful to see the case for Scottish Independence rearing its head once again. Six years seems rather short to be a classed as a generation, alas, perhaps I have fallen victim to the ‘pig in a poke,’ and the false promises of a referendum.

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