The EU referendum has led to doubts about referendums as an instrument of public policy. Albert Weale suggests that the good conduct of referendums depends on the question being well defined and voters having easy access the relevant evidence. The EU referendum failed both of these tests. Future referendums should be on well defined questions and steps should be taken to provide access, in one convenient place, to the basic data necessary for votes to make a decision.
After the Brexit referendum result, many of those who think of themselves as democrats but who voted Remain are having doubts about referendums as an instrument of public policy. Some are appealing to the purely advisory status of any referendum in the UK constitution. Those who were already sceptical of the use of referendums now have their beliefs confirmed. However, one case no more makes a good argument in political theory than one swallow makes a summer. We should reflect on the Brexit referendum process, but we need to ask how we can define well justified principles governing the use and conduct of referendums in the light of that reflection.
The basic case for holding a referendum is that there are some issues that arise on the political agenda of societies that cannot realistically be handled by the normal processes of contest among political parties. Existential issues that change the standing and status of the country typically fall into this category. Extensions to the power of the European Union or secession are two obvious examples. Even in these cases, however, depending on history and tradition, referendums are not always the answer. In societies governed by strong principles of legal constitutionalism, supreme courts decide such matters, as has been true of the German Constitutional Court over successive European Union treaties. However, in political systems where supreme courts cannot play this role, referendums may be the only device available. What matters in such cases is that they should contribute to resolving the issue, at least for some years, not worsening the problem.