Referendums: Doomed to divide us?


I think politics needs a bit of spicing up.  When Nigel Farage said this in 2002, not even he could have predicted the unrestrained chaos of the EU referendum. With over two years since the vote, the UK still seems irredeemably divided. It’s not hard to posit that it wasn’t the subject, but the nature of the discussion that caused all this. A few months of campaigning and a couple of TV debates, and all of a sudden the British public was asked to wrestle with a question that has thrown us into total polarisation. This begs the question: are we a country that can handle the pressure of deciding?

The people, having been given a voice on the matter, don’t want to give it back

This isn’t meant as an insult to the average voter, nor an underestimation of the power of direct democracy. The European question is one of life and death for many. The people, having been given a voice on the matter, don’t want to give it back. The past few years, however, have shown how painfully unprepared we have been to hash this one out in public.

To understand why this has happened, a question needs to be asked – do referendums always do this to a country? Although recent Catalan struggles spring to mind, I don’t really see what we gain by looking outwards to a country with a totally different political backbone to ours. More can be learned from looking at other experiences we’ve had back home.

When it comes to the 2016 vote, it feels like we are dealing with an entirely different beast

It goes without saying that our country doesn’t always descend into chaos when we put a question to the public. For example, the public didn’t really care much about the 2011 vote on electoral reform, which garnered a fairly pitiful 42.2% turnout. 1973’s EU vote incensed the public at the time, but we enjoyed decades of stability before the question reared its head again. The Scottish “indyref” generated a lot of buzz, but Scotland doesn’t seem as consumed by rage as the whole United Kingdom is now. When it comes to the 2016 vote, it feels like we are dealing with an entirely different beast.

A referendum on any hot-button issue is going to generate more animosity and vitriol than a regular vote in Parliament – for months at a time, the floodgates are opened to anyone with an opinion and a loud enough voice. The sheer scale of this vote compared to those we’ve had before means the process has allowed destructive, populist voices to seep in.

We revel in the publicity of the debate, proud to exercise our democratic right, and we end up hating each other in the process. Just enough dialogue is allowed that everybody is desperate to have an opinion, but not enough for them to know why they hold it.

The number of referendums we’re holding is sharply on the rise, and with them, the inherent dangers that come with.

However, ask any random member of the public, and you’ll be hard-pressed to get an opinion on whether we should have adopted the Alternative Vote system back in 2011. So, is it the EU – and not the very concept of a referendum – that is actually responsible? YouGov polling on “the most important issues facing the country” has revealed that, ever since the referendum, Brexit has topped the list by a fairly sizeable margin – higher than the economy or healthcare. A Parliamentary vote on our EU membership never would have sufficed; people needed to feel heard.

Referendums aren’t inherently a bad idea. But when the issue being voted on is so stomach-turningly constitutional, we just aren’t well-equipped enough to have that debate. We live in an age where most people’s political comes almost solely from Twitter. The public dialogue just doesn’t have the space to keep everyone informed on every issue.

Desirable as direct democracy is, we’ve taken a leap into uncharted territory by asking the public – and many are clamouring to be asked again. The number of referendums we’re holding is sharply on the rise, and with them, the inherent dangers that come with. “Advisory” referendums are a thing of the past, and we live in a country more governed by the masses than ever before. This situation brings exciting opportunities, but we might not come out of it with much dignity unless we figure out how to have a proper discussion.

Image by Martin Hearn via Flickr. 

One thought on “Referendums: Doomed to divide us?

  • Here in Colorado we have far more experience with direct democracy, voting this year on 13 state-level referendums AND initiatives, which Europe doesn’t have except for Switzerland. With initiatives the people set the agenda by passing petitions for whatever laws or Amendments we want, so they are more important than referendums referred for the people’s vote by the legislature.

    The voters’ record in the last 18 years here puts the record of ANY state legislature to shame:

    Since the year 2000, we passed Amendment 20, legalizing medical marijuana; Amendment 22, closing the gun-show loophole; Amendment 23, raising K-12 spending; Amendment 27, one of the country’s strictest campaign finance limits; Initiative 37, the country’s first renewable energy requirements for utilities; Amendment 41, the country’s strongest Ethics in Government law; Initiative 42, raising the minimum wage; Amendment 54, prohibits government contractors from making campaign donations; Amendment 64, the country’s first legal marijuana AND hemp law; Amendment 65, asking our Congressional Representatives to work to reverse Citizens United; Amendment 70 for a $12 an hour minimum wage; Proposition 106, Medical Assistance in Dying for the terminally ill; and Proposition 107, for Open Presidential Primaries; Amendment Y, to end gerrymandering in our congressional districts; and Proposition 111, which restricts payday loan interest rates.

    You can see details of each by going to and searching for Colorado Amendment X.

    Government BY the people. It works!

    Important in systems theory is that any system, natural or artificial, must correct its own mistakes. Politicians usually cover them up instead, to protect their careers and their donors. Voters don’t have that incentive, but have more skin in the game.

    The problem with initiative and referendum in this country is that they are too difficult unless you have lots of money to hire paid petitioners. In Switzerland they have online petitioning at and petitions can just sit unsupervised at stores and offices, so no paid petitioners are needed.

    Boulder, Colorado just passed 71 to 29% a referendum to allow for online petitions:

    There is great interest at the Colorado Capitol and a national organization has just pledged to fund and Implement online petitions for either the state or the city of Boulder.


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