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Lessons From Scottish Referendum:
The People Must Rule
But How Do We Know What They Really Want?

The end result of the referendum on Scottish independence was reassuring to the trade as it had no desire to deal with another tax system, etc. Although, theoretically, had Scotland voted for independence and joined the EU, there would still be a single market – whether in fact Scotland could join the EU was not certain. Many EU countries have regions that would like to break away – the Catalan region of Spain, for example – and so these countries could have blocked Scotland’s EU membership to remind their own citizens of the economic risks of independence.

From an American perspective, the whole thing was both infuriating and shocking. Infuriating because there was no indication an independent Scotland was preparing to spend resources to defend itself — in fact it had already been announced that an independent Scotland would demand the removal of the Trident Submarine Base from its territory. So it appeared that an independent Scotland would look to freeload on the American nuclear umbrella.

It was shocking because when some states wanted to secede from the American Union, we had the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history right up through today, with 22,717 dead. The Treaty of Union, which established The United Kingdom of Great Britain, is over 300-years-old and provides no option for secession. Although the British would point out that Scotland was a nation, not a state, it is unclear what that really means, as the attributes of a nation – its own military, its own foreign policy, etc. – had long ago disappeared.

We can’t help but see in the whole matter a kind of testimony to the decline of the West. It is just a reality that there is scarcely anything that the west is prepared to fight for, and David Cameron clearly was not going to send in the tanks if the Scotts wanted out, just as it is clear President Obama is not sending in the troops if Russia decided to nip into NATO-member Estonia, so an orderly referendum was probably the best policy.

Still the whole idea of referendums is a bad one.

First, if you accept the notion that whatever a majority of citizens want should happen, you basically ensure the issue is never settled.  Ok, on this particular day the vote went with union; maybe in five years, the polls will show otherwise. If you accept the idea that the majority should settle these matters, you really have a moral responsibility to do another referendum.

Second, you turn democracy into some kind of petty arithmetic. So what if 50.01% of the citizens had voted for independence? Do we do major historical changes based on such small differences?

Third, the whole process is a caricature of democracy. America’s Founders clearly believed that the people were sovereign and that their will should prevail, but they also realized that “the people” are emotional and impulsive and that finding out the true and authentic “will of the people” is more complicated than direct democracy in the form of referendums can express.

The American Founders set up a multi-staged process to make sure that the public will had congealed before it became the law of the land. So the House of Representatives is elected every two years and can swing wildly based on sentiments at the moment. The President is elected every four years, serving as a block against a sudden swing of emotion, and the Senate turns over fully every six years, extending the time by which a sentiment must be sustained before it becomes law. The Supreme Court can take decades for a majority to change. The point is the people are sovereign, their will must be executed, but it must be a considered will, sustained over a period of time before we can be certain it represents the authentic voice of the people.

The whole idea of popular referendums is counter to this. They mostly provide politicians with an excuse to avoid hard decisions.

Yet even more dangerous is that more referendums may be forthcoming. The Conservatives have said they will hold a referendum on EU membership if the party wins the next election.

It is possible the vote might go against remaining in the EU, and for many good reasons, but in the end an economically isolated UK would benefit nobody. 

Whatever decisions must be made, it is a cheap and easy thing for politicians to say they are going to “let the people decide” by holding referendums.  Politicians are hired and paid by the people to study and learn about these issues and to reflect this considered judgment in their votes.

There will be more and more pressure to go to direct democracy as technology makes it easier and easier. We could have referendums now every minute on our smart phones. That might seem more democratic to some, but it is unlikely to result in better government.

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