Alastair Osborne says referendums should never be used to sneak through a change that splits the country in two, but only to validate a genuine and lasting shift in national mood.


As the Labour leadership wrestles with whether to support a second vote on Brexit,  I thought I would offer some thoughts on the use of referendums to help concentrate their minds.

The government of the United Kingdom has held 13 referendums since 1973 but only three of these have been UK-wide. Referendums on EU expansion and on the Euro were abandoned. I have been able to vote on 6 in my lifetime – Membership of the EEC, two on Scottish devolution, the AV voting system for Westminster, Scottish Independence and whether to leave the EU. I voted for the winning side on all of them except the last one, although we failed in the first Scottish devolution referendum on a technicality.

Don’t tell the nationalists, but referendums are always consultative and Parliament remains sovereign. However in reality no UK Government or aspiring government is going to ignore the democratic verdict of the people in a referendum it has sanctioned, either pre-legislative or post-legislative. In best pantomime season rhetoric, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle as far as Brexit is concerned, thanks to David Cameron’s catastrophic error.

I am not a great fan of referendums. They allow governments to absolve themselves of responsibility for decision making while being far from neutral in the campaign itself; they are only held if the government feels fairly confident of the outcome (even if that confidence is not always justified); there is usually an imbalance of resources between each side of the argument; complex issues end up being oversimplified; they are merely a snapshot of public opinion but can decide things for future generations.

They can sometimes be a good way of demonstrating changed public opinion on social and ethical issues when the elected parliaments are afraid to legislate. Ireland has shown this on divorce, same sex marriage and abortion rights.

When I worked for North Ayrshire Council we held a referendum on what should be on the new West Kilbride road signs and whether they should mention Seamill and Portencross. Other momentous decisions by referendums have included car free Sundays (Switzerland); choosing from four songs to best represent the nation (Australia); and whether toilet paper in public loos should hang over or under the roll (Saskatchewan Canada).

In his powerful speech on the eve of the Scottish independence referendum, Gordon Brown stressed that he would be voting for his children’s future – not deciding just for the now but for all time. That’s the key difference between a parliamentary vote and a referendum. Politicians can return to an issue and vote differently. Referendums should never be used to sneak through a change that splits the country in two but only to validate a genuine and lasting shift in national mood. Otherwise we hand democracy over to whoever can best finance and deploy marketing and lobbying skills to impart false information and unrealistic expectations.

I would place a cap on the number of referendums which could be called – let’s say one every ten years (after the second People’s Vote on Brexit of course). We might have to have a referendum on such a Referendum Cap (which could only be consultative!).