Debating referendums

Lord Norton

This evening, the Hansard Society organised a seminar on referendums.  There was a panel comprising Professor Vernon Bogdanor, the journalist Steve Richards, and me – standing in for Peter Riddell, the Society’s chair, who was unable to attend.

It was a well attended meeting.  Vernon Bogdanor put the case for referendums, though seeing little merit in Thursday’s referendum.  Steve Richards argued the case against referendums.  Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I weighed in on Steve Richards’ side and argued against the use of referendums.   Some of the arguments I have rehearsed in earlier posts.  Rather than take up undue space here summarising my arguments, anyone interested can read them here.

I said in opening that if most of the audience agreed with me I would do a post saying what an intelligent audience we had.  Suffice to say that most turned out to be woolly-minded liberals.

13 comments for “Debating referendums

  1. jake____
    03/05/2011 at 11:39 pm

    Lord Norton, whilst I fundamentally agree with your assessment on referendums, I still think it is a sorry state of politics. Thursday’s example highlights the problems with referendums, and even more poignantly, the problem with politics.

    Politics is no longer a battle of policies (was it ever?), where rational debate for and against are had, cost-benefit analysis’s are conducted etc… No.. it is now just a big popularity contest, no one researches both sides of an argument to form an opinion. Now a two minute ad or banner headline forms one’s opinions.. so, do we deserve the leaders we elect?

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      04/05/2011 at 8:56 am

      Jake: I have considerable sympathy with the point you make. I made the point last night, in response to a question, that I thought referendums were a distraction from the task of strengthening engagement of Parliament with the people. This is amore demanding and constant exercise than having an occasional referendum.

      • jake____
        05/05/2011 at 9:34 pm

        Lord Norton, it is Thursday and I fear that AV will lose. Regardless what side one sits on this issue, after David Blunkett’s comments (, it is a terribly sad day for politics..

        It just proves what I have been saying, that politics is no longer about improvement of society, but a popularity contest aiming for short term public ‘gains’ (or clever statistical manipulation to show improvements where there aren’t any) for personal long-term incentives. Politics is thoroughly broken, hysteria and mis-information rule, the public cannot even be trusted to make a decision that is in their best interest… or at the very least have a rational and considered approach/debate.. no, the DM headline said it all ( no in depth analysis about the mathematics of AV, no experts, but lots of opinion and a letter from Cameron..

        All this has only proved that this country is not ready for referendums, which is sad because I genuinely think people need and want more engagement in politics, without the headlines and vested interests making their decisions before we get a chance for a rational debate…

  2. MilesJSD
    04/05/2011 at 9:38 am

    I think you are totally wrong, Lord Norton; simply because of your heavily blinkered bias into, and selfishly-tory ‘group-think’ possession-by, FPTP and “Debate-is-the-be-all-and-end-all-and-final-democratic-judge-sentencer-and-executioner”.

    There are always more sides to a Needs-&-Affordable-Hows stand-off and scrutiny-issue than the mere two sides and “winner-takes-all, loser-must-stand-small” of the by-definition demeaningly-competitive win-lose Debate.

    In Tavistock Market yesterday I saw for the first time a three-opponents chess-board,

    which reminded me of the “Cooperative Debate”
    which was trying to be established by the Alternative Green Centre in Nimbin NSW in the 199Ts,
    such that every real and possible need, of every-one, had to be first clearly recognised, agreed and publicly-listed, before moving on to prioritising any of them;

    i.e. it is a non-competitive and truer-democratic way “to meet every-side’s real-needs”; and a much more intelligent and real-life-responsible governance-basic than your still-prevalent only-two-sides, “only one side wins, only the “strongest” takes all”)

    three-sided chess is a very simple illustration of ‘minimal-democracy’
    you know, instead of only two players and sets of 16 pieces-&-pawns each we have three players and three sets, on a modified board with modified squares and numberings thereof.

    Even so, the chess-game can still end in a Stalemate, or a ‘king-self-toppled’, and ‘one-winner-only’;

    whereas in a true and sustain-worthy democracy, an even more intelligent and fair-play governance-process & regulation is needed,
    so that every real-need is both recognised and planned to be adequately met :-
    first-priority and foremost, to be Publicly-Listed, and continuingly up-dated during

    the second-priority essential of Information-sharing and cooperatively-constructive Discussion-and-Evaluation-sharing, by all levels of The People and the public;

    ((the latter of which has never been allowed to effectively exist in the United Kingdom, but is being continually stifled by (your chosen, Lord Norton) monopolistically-domineering “two sides only” competitive one-winner-takes-all “Democratic-Debates” )).
    It is neither the Referendum nor People-upwards two-way Democracy that is wrong;

    it is the One-Party-State Pseudo-democracy, that has you and the whole of the British, and World, governance-institutions and individuals, in its greed-driven and insidiously life-choking grip, that is wrong and in urgent need of a ‘revolutionary’ clean-up and positively-effectivising people-democratisation
    (to be continued:
    and watch also for the answers to the “Secret of Healing” and “I will keep away from people and places that cause me to sin” questions posted under Lord Norton’s current Quiz “Peers and PMs”).

  3. maude elwes
    04/05/2011 at 2:16 pm

    @Lord Norton:

    Your thread opening reminds me of the film, Citizen Cane, with Orson Wells. It had two newspaper headlines ready for the morning run, one boldly claims, ‘CANE WINS,’ the other, ‘FRAUD AT POLLS.’

    Referendums are the only way this country now has any chance of hearing the ‘peoples’ voice. As long as those referendum are correctly phrased that is, and will they be?

    I have some of the feeling of the previous poster, Jake, on how and why our government has allowed itself to stoop to such ludicrous vacillation as we presently see all too often. This gives off a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity. A, we don’t know where we are stance. Add to that, the merging of all parties, which creates a feeling of ambivalence to the voter. Selection being impossible as there is hardly a difference between them. Most importantly, all the parties give vague manifestos which lend no accurate indication as to their true aims for the country. And once in power, they refuse to acknowledge any previous stance and clearly give no credit to the public position. Voting for these people is like buying a ticket for a mystery tour.

    Who told us they intended to go to war with Iraq? And that was passed by the entire House. Afghanistan was never an issue. We found ourselves there by slight of hand. And Libya. Don’t even go there.

    Immigration. Who told us they planned to swell our population by millions regardless of the difficulties of such a mission and the impact on the culture and the infrastructure of this tiny island. Let alone the comfort zone of the majority of its people. Who would have voted for that? Can you answer with any honesty? Nobody appears to want to represent the desire of this nation. And if the people speak up they are humiliated if they don’t approve of what is being forced on them.

    Only this morning I heard Miliband minor back tracking on his earlier words admitting multiculturalism had been a mistake. Now, he says, his party isn’t going to change the plan for more of the same massive influx, should he be re-elected. The only good to come of that interview, was truth. At very least, although he tried hard not to, he did admit more mass immigration was his intention.

    Cameron is another example. He offered balancing of the national budget as his forte. Yet, he ring fences Foreign Aid, whilst cutting our school allocation, health service, benefits and assistance to the disabled. Who would have voted for that? Anyone? What people voted for, with regard to benefit cuts, was the thousands of people coming into the country and going straight for the housing hand outs, benefit payments and the like. Not to sanction their mothers being starved to death in hospital, or, have their possessions seized when they are placed in care homes. And do you believe Parliament, in its entirety, didn’t know that difference? Of course they did.

    So, the only way the people will have any say in this, is by referendum on these policies. Or, as near as they can get to it.

    Perhaps a referendum on what to have referendum on may be the way to go! And guided principles on where governments should be taking us. As they cannot be trusted on what they will do once in power.

    However, care on wording for referendum is paramount. This AV question is the way they found to confuse and create a situation they want, rather than stick to the wish of the public. What they did was a Humphrey. The issue, when it arose, was, proportional representation. Which was known to be popular. So, what they put forward is AV, which they also knew to be, unpopular. Thereby betting the outcome would remain first past the post, same as usual. Very ‘Yes, Minister’ that. Secret dirty deal.

    It’s time we had an opportunity to hear the will of the people. And referendum is the answer.

    • maude elwes
      05/05/2011 at 4:18 pm

      Mortified to find I made an error in spelling on Citizen Kane, and when I saw it, as I didn’t read before posting it, I was unable to edit. Very red flashing face all round.

      So, it read, KANE WINS. Not as written. Apologies.

      And to the Hansard people. An edit button would be good here.

      • Hansard Society
        Beccy Allen
        05/05/2011 at 5:11 pm

        Maude – noted. Many more plans for development in the future so I hope this will be possible in time…

        • maude elwes
          05/05/2011 at 5:23 pm

          Look forward to it Beccy. Thank you.

  4. Gareth Howell
    04/05/2011 at 4:24 pm

    Can they not be referend-ums using alternative voting?

    Then there might be some intelligent answers to the questions put.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      05/05/2011 at 7:04 pm

      Gareth Howell: May make it difficult to campaign on a Yes or No platform!

  5. MilesJSD
    05/05/2011 at 7:33 am

    point of order:

    It appears that jake___ had foreknowledge of Lord Norton’s impending Post, and had already prepared the very first published comment to it:

    10.57 p.m. Tuesday 03 May2011 Lord Norton published this Post.

    but more than 7 (seven) hours before that time, “jake___” ‘s first comment had been written and was published !

    03.39 p.m. T030511: jake___’s comment “Lord Norton, whilst I…agree, …it is a sorry state of politics…”

    to which Lord Norton replies at

    04.56 a.m. W040511 “Jake, I have…sympathy with the point you make…” .
    inserted above milesjsd
    0438 a.m. W040511 “I think you are totally wrong, Lord Norton…”.

    Something ‘fishy’ is going on … ( ? )



    • Dave H
      05/05/2011 at 7:21 pm

      You’ve not seen the large blue box in the corner?

  6. Gareth Howell
    05/05/2011 at 7:50 am

    Then there might be some intelligent answers to the questions put.

    I think that would class as AI (artificial intelligence), but very useful intelligence nonetheless.

    It is for such purposes that the Alternative Vote should be used, for Artificial Intelligence. the Idiocy of FPTP should be put behind us.

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