To What Extent Would the Wide Use of Referendums Improve Democracy in the UK?
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The wide use of referendums would make an improvement to democracy in the UK. A reason why it would be so beneficial is that referendums highly encourage political participation. Over recent years, political participation has not been at it’s highest, with people expecting a mere 55% turnout at the next vote, referendums could be just what are required to engage the public in politics. The Good Friday referendum is an example of referendums improving democracy. With an 81.1% turnout in a country where voting is not even mandatory, referendums make the public feel they should educate themselves on the matter because their view is required and important.
Although it’s good to have a large amount of the public excited to input their views into political matters, there is the issue that the people of the public lack specialized knowledge, and can be easily swayed by the government. This is not very democratic and therefore would not improve democracy in the UK. The 1975 EEC referendum asked a question phrased in a way that would make the people give the answer that the government wanted, and this is not a true representation of the views of the public.
Referendums cause the public to become more educated and engaged, which would help the UK to become more democratic. For example, the Scottish referendum scheduled to take place next year has already started campaigning, with their “Yes, Scotland” campaign. Through activities like campaigning, the government can engage the public and they then become more educated about it.
Referendums can be exciting and engaging, but sometimes other means can influence and bias voters, as they are only people, so their true beliefs aren’t represented and then the whole referendum was pointless. For example, during the Northern Ireland Sovereignty Referendum, the leader of the SDLP organised a boycott and told the members to ignore the referendum. As well as this, less than 1% of the catholic population turned out to vote. This means the outcome would not have been a true representation of everybody’s opinion.
Although people can interfere with the outcome of a referendum, there’s no denying that referendums are the best answer for overcoming deadlocks between political parties. If political parties absolutely can’t come to an agreement, then a referendum can be held, and this way the public gets their say on the matter as well. In the alternative vote referendum, it was decided that the first past the post system would be resumed. This way of forming an agreement is very democratic.
Although the Alternative Vote referendum was democratic, it was also a bit pointless in the end, because right from the start of the referendum, the public already had a strong preemption as to what would be voted for. A disadvantage of the referendum is that there are so many other means that can be put into place instead of a referendum which give you a wider variety of choice and are generally more beneficial.
On the subject of the Alternative Vote referendum, even though people knew what the outcome would be, it did prove that referendums are a purer, more direct form of democracy. The question of whether the first-past-the-post system should be replaced with the alternative vote system was asked to the public, and citizens responded by expressing their views and as a result, the alternative voting system was not passed.
A problem with referendums is that it undermines the system of representative democracy, and they almost make the idea of electing a leader redundant. In the North East Assembly referendum, it was quite clear that the government wanted the people to vote yes, however the vast majority voted no, against the wishes of the government. This shows that referendums barely give the government any political authority over the public.
Even though the public voted no, the positive side to this is that a clear answer was provided to the question. And this is precisely what referendums do, they clearly highlight the views of the public in a way that means the government can’t go wrong. In the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement referendum in 1998, the people were inquired as to whether there was support for the Good Friday Agreement, and the outcome was a majority 71.1% in favour. This shows that referendums are very efficient and clearly structured.
An issue with referendums is the cost of them. The cost of referendums is incredible excessive, and this cost can be even higher when it is already ‘known’ that the majority yes vote will be received. In the 1975 EEC referendum, they already realised they would receive the Yes vote, and as a result, ridiculous amounts of money was spent. This cost could make one question whether it’s actually worth it.
In conclusion, referendums have proved to be very successful in some instances in the past. However they are just not developed enough yet to become frequently put into practice. People may argue that referendums are destructive towards parliament and disrupt built up traditions, however politics and parliament are always changing. In the UK, our system is democratic enough, and it works. Referendums are democratic in the sense that they get more people involved, and truly create a democracy. However we should not abolish the system that we have or start frequently using referendums because although people can argue that we sometimes lack democracy, something that we rarely ever lack is political stability. And considering some large scale effects of failed referendums, an improvement to democracy is not worth the inevitable sacrifice of political stability.