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Mike Doig gave a thorough and thought-provoking analysis of referendums at the Rotary meeting on 5 February 2019.

Referendums (=Referenda = Plebicites)

'Direct Democracy' - Put the question to the people and let them decide.


'Parliamentary or Representative Democracy' - Elect people to make decisions for us.


A hybrid of the two - focussing a general election on a single issue.

A Referendum has to:

  1. Be simple and easily understood
  2. Have a clear course of action
  3. Be free of conflicts of interest
  4. Pose a question where one person’s opinion is as good as another’s
  5. There is freedom of action to implement the result

Representative Democracy is best where:

  1. The question is complex
  2. It needs expert analysis and input
  3. Decisions need to be teased out slowly
  4. Decisions require consultation with third parties
  5. There are trade-offs to be considered

A good decision is one where, after the passage of time, the majority are still comfortable with it.

In most countries, Referendums are rarely used.

Examples: probably OK for referendums

  • Change our flag?
  • Change our voting system?
  • Decriminalise abortion?
  • Decriminalise marijuana?
  • Become a republic?

and not OK:

  • What should be the top rate of income tax be?
  • More money for PHARMAC?

The Brexit Question
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
June 2016  - Factors which influenced voters


  • Immigration
  • Dislike of ‘Foreigners’
  • EU Bureaucracy
  • Annual contribution to EU funds
  • Sovereignty (ie not subject to EU or ECJ decisions)


  • Impact on the economy, jobs
  • Trade prospects
  • National Security
  • Freedom to work in EU
  • Policing/crime prevention/terrorism
  • Membership of EU institutions (Atomic, Environmental, Scientific etc)
  • Status of UK retirees in EU

The border in Ireland (Nobody foresaw this problem)

This Referendum was a blunder leading to a constitutional crisis and trashing of Britain’s reputation. It was borne out of a split in the Tory Party. Direct democracy collided with representative democracy.

  • 65% of MPs wanted to remain but 52% of voters in 63% of constituencies said ‘leave’.
  • MPs were trapped.
  • No-one knew what leaving really meant.
  • Negotiating with the EU proved difficult.
  • Superficially the question seemed simple but the issues are very complex.
  • The motives of many voters were unworthy.
  • It's not clear to what extent social media and Russian interference played a part.

With hindsight, the referendum failed the basic tests.





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