20 June 2008

The case against a referendum...

... is also the case for more referendums. An interesting article by Steve Richards in the [UK] Independent on 17 June: writing about the Irish referendum result and one UK politician's resigning to call a by-election on the single issue of civil liberties, Mr Richards writes:
a referendum is a device proposed by leaders only when they are certain they can win. Conversely it is used by voters to cast their verdict on a variety of subjects often unrelated to the single issue they are supposed to be voting on. ... Similarly, single-issue by-elections are a distortion, the crusading candidate implying that one policy can be plucked out of the air and made the subject of excessive and simplistic attention, when any national leader must address the subtleties of the relevant single issue and give more prominence to other policy areas.
All this is true. But would it be true if there were more referendums? Politics, as Mr Richards also says, is 'about the resolution of disagreement through debate, manoeuvring , winning votes in parliament, persuading voters and the media to come on board.' Ordinary people are too far removed from this business, I think, so when we are given the chance we often adopt the 'plague on both your houses' approach that Mr Richards (rightly) derides. One answer could be to express policy goals more in terms of outcomes than process; more in terms of ends than the means of reaching them. Notions of trade-off and opportunity cost seem to be remarkably absent from most of the media discussion about policymaking, at least in the UK. But having to choose between different outcomes could refocus the debate, and give us more realistic expectations of what our politicians can deliver. They are, after all, our representatives. We should be given such choices more often: we'd then identify more closely with out politicians, who have to make policy decisions all the time; and give us less incentive to let off steam when, as now, the opportunity to do so is a rare event.

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