When is it appropriate to hold a referendum?

The Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit to review the role of referendums in UK democracy, is holding its second meeting today. At today’s meeting the members are focusing on whether principles can be identified for deciding when holding a referendum is appropriate. In this post the Commission’s Research Assistant, Jess Sargeant, summarises the issues for consideration.

The first UK referendum, with the exception of polls at a very local level, took place in 1973 in Northern Ireland. Since then there have been three UK-wide referendums, and ten referendums covering parts of the UK. Yet the question of what role referendums should play in the UK’s system of democracy remains unresolved. This is the question for discussion at today’s meeting of the Independent Commission on Referendums.

In this post, I explore the question of whether principles can be identified for deciding when a referendum is appropriate. I do not attempt to draw conclusions, or foretell those of the Commission, but simply put forward proposals for consideration.

How are democratic decisions best made?

To answer the question of what role referendums should play in a system of democracy, one must first consider how political decisions are best made. This depends on how one conceives of democracy. Broadly speaking there are three alternative conceptions: direct, representative, and deliberative.

According to the theory of direct democracy, decisions are most democratic when preferences are expressed directly by the people; representative institutions will distort popular will. In contrast, proponents of representative democracy argue that collective decision-making requires participants to dedicate significant time and resources to the process. It is not feasible for all citizens to do that, so decisions are best made by elected representatives. The third conception is deliberative democracy, according to which decisions should be made through processes in which everyone’s voice is heard and arguments and evidence are thoroughly considered. This conception is commonly associated with citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries.

Although these visions of democracy are often presented as mutually exclusive, most modern democracies incorporate elements of all three. Rather than being diametrically opposed, different forms of democracy can complement each other and be used to address disadvantages or shortcomings of other methods of decision-making. Regardless of which conception of democracy one subscribes to, it may still be possible to identify certain circumstances in which referendums might be appropriate.

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