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PETER WICKHAM: Plebiscites and public competence I


Peter Wickham, [email protected]

PETER WICKHAM: Plebiscites and public competence I

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RECENT POLITICAL EVENTS are such that we have now become very familiar with the “plebiscite” or “Referendum” which seeks the public’s opinion on a vote of national importance.

There are, of course, several types of referenda and these have been liberally used to facilitate decision making in both ancient and modern times.  Referenda can be regular as in the case of Switzerland or ad hoc as in the case of the UK Brexit vote. 

The UK Brexit vote was also an example of an optional referendum since the government was under no obligation to solicit public opinion, while in the case of St Vincent, Antigua and Grenada, their referendum is mandatory in respect of some constitutional changes.

The issues central to direct democracy and referenda are neither straightforward nor settled and over time, two distinct camps have evolved that support and oppose the plebiscite.

Previously, I have noted my inclination towards the side that opposes the plebiscite, or would prefer it be used sparingly.  These views were perhaps influenced by my first politics teacher (Sir Lloyd Sandiford) who was similarly sceptical and whose logic has had a profound impact on my own thinking.

The problem that arises regarding those who are sceptical about the plebiscite is that these concerns are often confused with a distrust of the electorate which is politically incorrect for me as a commentator and politically unwise for Sir Lloyd Sandiford as a politician.

As a wave of recent referenda has passed, however, I have grown more sceptical and believe that public discourse could benefit from an articulation of the reasons for such scepticism. There are two basic problems I have with referenda and one is that people often come to the “wrong” conclusions, while the other relates to my concern that it is inappropriate to expose some matters to a public vote that could fail.

The suggestion that people got it “wrong” in a referendum sounds condescending but needs to be taken in the context of an appreciation that political decisions are no less specialised than those of professionals in medical or engineering fields.  If one made a hypothetical decision to build a bridge and potential designs were agreed upon, the engineer would then advise on measures that would be needed to guarantee its structural integrity.  In such an instance, it would be profound folly for the engineer to ask the civilian for advice on engineering specifics.

In such scenarios, we have assumed that it is only the engineer who makes professional decisions; however, the politician who makes the decision to build the bridge is also exercising professional judgement that has several implications thecivilian is likely to oversimplify. As such, I would suggest that it is equally illogical for leaders to abdicate mtheir responsibility to a public vote that could go the wrong way.

Sadly, we have several recent referenda in this category and the Brexit vote is the most obvious.  Subsequent to the vote, information came to light which suggested that several people who voted did not know what they were voting for or about and certainly did not anticipate the damage they were doing to themselves or the extent to which their core concerns could not be fixed by leaving the EU.

More tragic than the Brexit is the recent Columbian rejection of a peace deal that would have ended 52 years of war with the FARC guerrillas which claimed 250 000 lives. In this instance, the turnout was low; however, the “no” vote won and effectively scuttled four years of negotiations designed to end a war. A “yes” vote would have allowed Columbia to settle down and focus on development.

In both these instances, commentators understand the reasons why persons voted “no” and both were related in some way to a prioritisation of the human instinct to either fear foreigners or to settle scores (among other issues).  There are entirely normal preoccupations that impact on the human psyche, but can impact negatively on progress when these instincts are not buttressed by other considerations of which the professional politician might bemore aware.

In Columbia, President Santos’ human desire to avenge the death and destruction brought by the FARC was moderated by the fact that he understood the concession was for the greater good. In the UK, it is now clear that a majority of politicians understand the extent to which the issue was not as simple as £52 Million out of Brussels budget and into the NHS.

Perhaps if matters had remained in the hands of professional politicians who took the time to understand the complexity of the issues, both countries could have avoided decisions that will cause significant discomfort and distraction.

Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and director of the Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). 

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