What's the point of referendums today?

Monday 22 September, 18.00 until 19.30, Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Abbey Place, Faversham, Kent, ME13 7BQ UK Satellite Events 2014

Event is free but ticketed. Please contact office@queenelizabeths.kent.sch.uk to book.

The debate over the use of referendums is as old as politics itself, with arguments about their relative merits dating back to ancient Athens. Many have argued that the referendum is the embodiment of pure democracy, cutting out the ‘middle man’ that is the elected political class. Their greater use, it is argued, would result in a more politically engaged and informed populace, who not only develop intellectually through making decisions directly, but feel a greater sense of connection to the society they themselves construct through their choices. Railing against such arguments are those who reject what they see as romantic notions of referendum use, pointing to the historic examples of the abuse of referendums by dictators and despots. They argue that the best interests of the public are best safeguarded by a system of ‘government by politicians’, who are accountable through general elections. Others point to way referendums in fact often strengthen the grip of central government, which frames the question, chooses the timing and chooses the topic for debate.

For many years, the issue of referendum use in the UK among the political classes was a dead duck, with the past consensus centring on the views of people such as Clement Attlee, who described them as ‘alien to all our traditions’. However, from the late 1990s onwards, the rise in the use of direct democracy in the UK has been a significant talking point; at both local and national level, issues ranging from our voting system to devolution and even to local licensing hours have been decided by popular plebiscite. This autumn will see a referendum in Scotland on the independence question, and in a few years from now we may be voting on our membership of the EU.

Does this rise of the referendum signify a will for government to really give us more power, or is it simply a cynical manipulation of populism in the wake of historically low rates of participation in mainstream politics? Regardless of the intentions of politicians, should we be demanding more of a direct say in government as a general principle, or should our energies lie with a renewed defence of a more traditional model of representative democracy when trying to repair our fractured political system?

Janice Atkinson

Dr Paolo Dardanelli
senior lecturer in comparative politics, University of Kent

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Jo Phillips
award-winning journalist; former press secretary to Paddy Ashdown; co-author, Why Vote?

Craig Fairnington
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer

Produced by
Tom Finn-Kelcey head of faculty, Social Sciences, Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Faversham, Kent

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