chapter  8
16 Pages

The Referendum in Context

The theoretical case for referendums is relatively straightforward - they are democratic (see Butler and Ranney, 1994: ch. 2). Indeed, advocates of direct or participatory democracy suggest that decisionmaking by referendums is preferable to decision-making by elected representatives since it involves two democratic ideals - popular sovereignty and popular participation. In this view, 'the only truly democratic way to make decisions on matters of public policy is by the full, direct, and unmediated participation of all citizens' (Butler and Ranney, 1994: 12) and referendums allow this. A less extreme view sees referendums as useful supplements to the normal workings of parliamentary democracy. In certain circumstances and under certain conditions a referendum, because it allows the public to participate in decision-making, can confer a greater legitimacy on a policy than would be the case if the decision were made by elected politicians alone. Thus in Britain, where there is no written constitution, it is always possible that an incoming government will reverse any constitutional changes made by its predecessor. When the changes have been approved in a referendum, however, they have a greater chance of being permanent since few politicians would dare to challenge the clearly expressed will of the people.