Do we need a referendum on referendums?

March 8, 2012

Do we want those whom we elect to represent us, or channel us? To exercise their own judgment, or to be a simple conduit for the views of the majority of their electors?

It’s an old question, and the most famous answer to it, still much treasured by parliamentarians, is the one given by the Anglo-Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke to his electors in Bristol, England in 1774. An opponent vying for Burke’s seat had seemed to promise the Bristol voters (not numerous, in those days) that he would vote as they told him to.

That, said Burke, was wrong. “You choose a member indeed; but when you choose him, he is not a member of Bristol, but a member of parliament.” As that member, he has to determine not just the will of the little electorate of Bristol but that of the nation. “Your representative owes you … his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Edmund Burke is a hero of the political right: Margaret Thatcher, before she was leader of the Conservatives and later prime minister, quoted him when making the same point as his. But his opinion also registered across the political divide, as well as across the centuries: Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party and prime minister in its postwar government, thought the same, even more vehemently than Burke or Thatcher.

Nor is this confined to the “mother of parliaments” in London. It has been the common belief of electoral systems in democracies worldwide. And it’s been generally accepted that elected politicians need to exercise their judgment, especially at critical moments — rather than rely on the shifting opinions of the electorate.

When a U.S. president, burdened with the largest cares in the world, must decide what to do about momentous affairs of state — whether the possibility of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962 or the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon 50 years later — no one says: Let’s have a referendum! Ask the people what they want!

We don’t want mob rule: We want the lonely man in the Oval Office to come up with the right answer. As Europe still trembles on the verge of the collapse of its common currency, we expect a lonely woman in the German Chancellery — Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and de facto leader of the European Union — to similarly get it right. And when Silvio Berlusconi’s government in Italy ran out of excuses, diversions and money, the political class in that country voted for an unelected, technocratic prime minister in Mario Monti to take over, precisely so he, in his own loneliness, could take decisions.

We don’t turn these decisions over to the people in referendums, because citizens wouldn’t know what to do — or if they did, they would have hundreds of different opinions. Someone has to take the general view, in the fullest knowledge possible of the up- and downsides of every option. Someone has to carry the can.

Besides, tests of the popular will through referendums* give much practical support to Edmund Burke’s view of political life. California, the most persistent referendum taker among the U.S. states, is lumbered with the results of a referendum from 1978, Proposition 13, which placed a cap on property taxes, the main source of funding for schools — and has had a worsening, cash-strapped school system ever since. In 2009, six referendums on taxes to patch up the vast holes in the state’s budget were all voted down, which means the crisis has deepened.

(*For the wonks among us, there’s an apparent choice as to whether to say “referendums” or “referenda.” While “a” is the plural form of a Latin noun ending in “um,” referendum isn’t a noun, but a gerund. So “ums.” No calls for a referendum on this permitted.)

European leaders aren’t keen on referendums either: The voting keeps giving them the wrong answers. In the past few years, referendums in France, Ireland and the Netherlands have all rejected one or other of the major decisions taken by the European Union, a reflection of the fact that Euroskepticism, once thought the preserve of only the British, is creeping over the Continent.

For liberals, referendums are a particular challenge. There’s some substance to the view of the right that the people should decide, and when they do, they’ll be right, both morally and politically. Surveys by London’s YouGov polling organization this year showed that the British, given the chance, would vote heavily to reduce net immigration to zero; vote quite decisively to give the names of convicted pedophiles to parents in their areas; only a little less convincingly to take the UK out of the European Union; and narrowly bring back the death penalty (abolished in most of the UK in 1969) for the murder of a police officer.

All of the measures that would be voted down, meanwhile, were liberal causes — as with the banning of the death penalty for all crimes and a relaxed immigration policy. Were Britain to go the way of Switzerland and take its key decisions by popular will through referendums, it would be a much less liberal place. And it would not be alone. Especially now, in Europe, when immigration is unpopular, the British mood on immigrants would meet agreement elsewhere.

Yet the Burkean consensus is under strain. Politicians, aware of their unpopularity and a growing public demand to be involved in political decisions, are now promising to consult the people by referendum more than they have. President Nicolas Sarkozy — who earlier this week said that France had “too many immigrants” — has promised referendums, not just on immigration but on education and welfare, as he seeks to claw down his Socialist opponents’ lead in the polls before the presidential election in April. David Cameron, the British premier, has called for a referendum in Scotland to determine whether or not it will remain in the UK. Most recently, the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has called a referendum on the European Stability Treaty, which would give Ireland access to extra funding but commit it to more budgetary control from Brussels.

The UK’s foremost pollster, the former journalist Peter Kellner, who is a co-founder and president of YouGov, sees this gathering tendency as a gathering threat to democratic politics. Noting the low trust ratings for politicians in his data, he told an audience in London on Monday that “the confidence of our political classes has been shot. They no longer take the big decisions.”

Some of this is the media’s fault, or at least our fault for loving the type of media that we do. The American media writer Neal Gabler (The Triumph of the American Imagination and much else worth reading) told Bill Moyers last month that Americans love political contests, and movies about great (or crooked) presidents, but they can’t bear to watch or read about the messy, tedious, compromising business of governance — “governance,” said Gabler, “is a lousy movie. And we don’t know how to deal with that.” And because Americans love movie politicians and hate the real ones, they withdraw their support from the real politicians in government and weaken them further. With such a public mood, Burke’s refusal to “sacrifice” his judgment to his electors’ opinions sounds like arrogance, the kind of thing few politicians would dare to say.

Yet it isn’t arrogance: Burke is still right. In democratic systems, we elect politicians to, more often than not, compromise; make deals; dilute their election rhetoric and ignore their voters’ demands. In doing so — if they do so in good faith and in pursuit of a general good — they serve democracy, and thus their voters, best.

PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and Brazilian President Dilma Roussoff are pictured during their opening walk at the CeBit computer fair in Hanover, March, 6, 2012 REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer


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“..citizens wouldn’t know what to do — or if they did, they would have hundreds of different opinions. Someone has to take the general view” the King said.

Posted by DwightJones | Report as abusive

The pedant would point out that there is ample precedent for referenda on the status of constituent parts of the British Isles, that it was the Irish Attorney General who pointed out the need for a referendum on the most recent pact, and that while “agendum” is also borrowed from a Latin gerund, few people hold meetings with agendums.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

I would argue to the contrary, that politicians of both major American political parties have long since ceased to serve “…in good faith and in pursuit of a general good…”.

They do NOT “…serve democracy, and thus their voters, best…” when they continually act or do not act, such that the country consistently, without interruption, spends more than “available revenue”. They similarly do NOT when they repeatedly scramble around to pass yet another meaningless increase in the country’s “debt ceiling”, a concept specifically intended to rein in excessive spending which has proven so inconvenient to them as to be ineffective to the purpose intended.

Both parties are guilty of subscribing to a policy best described as “if we spend it, they will pay (somehow)”. America had NEVER retired it’s debt from WW II. It has merely inflated it into insignificance by printing endless dollars with nothing whatsoever behind them.

In 1966 I bought a house priced at $21,600 with a G.I. loan, nothing down. In 1988 I sold that house for $178,000 cash. Did that house really increase in value the $156,400 “profit” the IRS would have assessed had I not reinvested in new property? Of course not. It just took the buyer more dollars “worth less” to buy a USED property!

The 1970 Datsun I bought new for $3600 (plus interest, 3-year contract) would cost over $22,000 in today’s “worth less” dollars, and yet the wage earner buying that car finds the income necessary to pay today’s much higher payments taxed at a higher rate. Actions of “Our” government have intentionally reduced interest available to the “common citizen” on Money Market, CDs, U.S. short term investments, bank accounts such that inflation erodes our principal faster than the effective rate of return, a betrayal of trust to all who would plan to retire above the poverty level.

Back when American politicians had to “make an honest living” and DONATE their time in service to the country if so inclined, few could afford more than a term or two. Since politics has become a “trade”, others can buy influence of a sort that leaves the interests of the common constituency ignored or of a priority so low as to be without meaning. Our politicians vote themselves benefits they know the country can never offer the common citizen, and incredibly see no conflict of interest.

YES! “We, the people” need referendums to FIX THIS! The sooner, the better!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

The people who would rule by referendum/plebiscite/initiative would be the same people who elect the politicians who legislate and administrate throughout the democracies. If the people in a democracy are dissatisfied with their country’s laws and governance, their first referendums could perhaps be directed toward limiting their own power to create dissatisfying outcomes. Maybe they could start by subjecting themselves to a confidence motion. Suppose they lose that one. Then what? Follow up with a referendum on reducing the extent of rule by referendum? Where are Gilbert and Sullivan when we need them?

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

We need only two referendums.
Term limits for Congress and campaign finance reform.
Then we can elect people of good judgment

Without these, nothing at all will change, ever.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive


You are confused. The people who VOTE would be the same. The people who RULE after the VOTERS set the RULES would be on a shorter leash, held by the voters, FORCED to serve “…in good faith and in pursuit of a general good…” or face quick impeachment and replacement.

If “we, the people” direct politicians to keep annual spending within “annual available funds”, they will have to do something they have NEVER had to do. Prioritize. They don’t seem to understand that America, like it’s citizens, can have ANYTHING it wants; but it can’t have EVERYTHING it wants.

New necessary skill. New ball game. Genuine, measurable goals and absolute accountability, for a change.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Funny. I don’t feel especially confused. The whole of humanity strikes me as a bit dazed, though. In America, for instance, the US Congress suffers a public approval rating of about 9%, yet every two years, that same public determines the composition of 100% of the House and approximately 1/3 of the Senate. Furthermore, as the author points out, rule-by-referendum has had mixed outcomes. Sometimes you get Switzerland. Sometimes you get California. So, perhaps other factors are more important in determining a society’s success. I’m certain it must come down to alpine geography, massive tunnel projects, advanced cuckoo clockworks, and an obsession with banking.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive


Your point is unclear, then. I think we’re stuck with humanity as it is. The U.S. Congress has the “lack of approval” it does because there has ceased to be any meaningful connection between those who elect them and what they do.

Switzerland seems to work fine. I lived in California when Howard Jarvis came up with Proposition 13. I worked hard to assure it’s passage. It save me a LOT in taxes over the years.

I’d like to see California’s referendum system throughout America, but neither “party of the politicians” wants people being able to make an end run around their otherwise exclusive powers. It DOES demonstrate how inventive campaigns can make black indistinguishable from white, and that the wording of any given issue on the ballot can decide an issue before the actual vote.

The primary “problem” California has is that it has so many unionized special interests that vote together with the disproportionate number of people receiving money from generous government programs. With so many sucking the public teat, there just isn’t enough milk any more, rich as that economy is. Maybe there’s a lesson there for those willing to learn.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

“In 2004 about 25% of employees in Switzerland belonged to a trade union. This compares with some 29% in the UK, and around 26% in the European Union as a whole. In the US the figure is about 13%.” kers_and_jobs/trade_unions/

Union membership, by state
rank…..state..% members, % rep.d by
6……..CA…..18.4,19.5 iation_by_U.S._state

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

Compared to other nations, Switzerland may also benefit from greater amounts of yodeling and fondue. It isn’t fair, but it does set the country apart. Thus, I postulate that the key is cultural, particularly musically and gastronomically.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

Or perhaps Swiss democracy succeeds because Switzerland has 4 official languages: German (63.7 %), French (20.4 %), Italian (6.5 %) and Romansh (0.5 %). Or maybe it’s because “Swiss citizens are required to buy universal health insurance from private insurance companies, which in turn are required to accept every applicant.” ( d) Who knows?

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive


I would say that if “the figure” in the U.S. (for belonging to a trade union) is “about 13%, I should have also speculated that California had a disproportionate number of unionized employees voting to feather their own nests.

I don’t know about the importance of yodeling and fondue, but I don’t believe it is easy to immigrate to Switzerland and become a Swiss citizen with all associated rights, privileges and associated expenses to the government. In California and much of the U.S. we roll out benefits for even illegal aliens that are unavailable to many of our own citizens in similar circumstance.

Just one of the many ways “our” politicians seek security at the polls at the expense of their lawful constituents.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive