Leading article: Referendums' worth is beyond question

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The Independent Online
"Our mandate is derived from our ability as Members of Parliament to represent our constituents." That was how Tony Blair rejected the idea of a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. Now he is planning up to five separate referendums - on devolution in Scotland, Wales and London, on electoral reform and possibly on a single European currency. It's a feast of democracy which would make ancient Athenians proud.

Let us not play the usual journalistic game of saying: "Aha - inconsistent!" Let us instead welcome the sinner that repenteth, however reluctant Mr Blair's repenting has been. Referendums are A Good Thing. There have only been three of them in this country (Europe 1975, Scotland 1979 and Wales 1979); there should be more. The record is patchy, but they ought to be an antidote to cynicism about politics and politicians. Referendum campaigns enliven debate; they put a duty on our leaders to explain themselves and they hand power and responsibility to the electorate.

But they are not suitable for deciding every jot and tittle of policy - otherwise, what would be the point of a parliament? Going too far down the road towards Californian propositioning or Swiss quizzing does take away the importance of placing responsibility in the hands of elected MPs - a delegated responsibility to make judgements on the basis of a thorough political grasp rather than a disconnected political whim. But there is a doctrine emerging, in the classic evolutionary manner of Britain's unwritten constitution, that referendums are appropriate on fundamental constitutional questions, such as relations with Europe and devolution.

It is a doctrine which is still fuzzy at the edges, because it is not clear what is and is not a "constitutional" issue. A change in the method by which MPs are elected, for example, certainly requires a referendum. But the definition should be drawn widely: there ought to be a presumption in favour of a referendum on any important change in the way our political society is ordered which can be simplified to a yes-no choice.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Mr Blair's Government is stretching the definition. Despite Mr Blair's strong personal belief in representative democracy (much reinforced no doubt by the fact that it is the system which has put him where he is today), he has solved a series of thorny political problems by promising referendums. The innovation of constitutional principle is to extend the reach of referendums into local government, by putting the London question to the people of the capital. It is to be hoped that, in future, all changes in local government structure should be put to the people affected.

There are, however, many issues which should not be decided by a referendum. A lot of the so-called conscience issues which are the subject of free votes in the House of Commons should remain with MPs. Abortion, for example, cannot be an absolute question, whatever its militant opponents say. Judgements about circumstances and time limits cannot sensibly be decided by referendum. Similar arguments apply to the death penalty, although it may be easier to define the crimes to which it applies. But there is another obstacle to this most popular of saloon-bar debating points, which is that parliament has to decide that there should be a referendum. In a representative democracy, one of the roles of MPs is to do things referendums cannot do: adjudicate priorities, assess long-term consequences of decisions and show leadership. It is right that they should decide precisely which issues should be put to the people, in what order and what the questions should be.

This last is an important point. The wording of questions can often influence the vote, and so should be as fair as possible. Yesterday's draft questions for the Scottish and Welsh referendums are admirable in this respect - leaving aside the inevitable "yes bias" (people prefer to give positive answers to opinion pollsters or governments), and the unnecessary use of the passive in the second question in Scotland (surely the parliament should "have the power to change tax rates" rather than "have tax-varying powers"?). This time, there is no chance of the nonsense about thresholds which wrecked Scottish devolution 18 years ago, because of a requirement that 40 per cent of those eligible to vote had to vote Yes, rather than a simple majority of those voting.

What of the answers to the questions? Again, as two weeks ago, this newspaper would not presume to tell its readers how to vote. But we have consistently advocated the devolution of power to those parts of the United Kingdom which want it, and have had little patience with logic riddles such as the West Lothian Question. Yes, it will be anomalous for Scottish MPs to have powers over English matters when English MPs have no say in such matters (such as schools and hospitals) in Scotland. But who will lose from this? The theoretical case of English Conservative voters cursing the yoke of a Labour Government sustained by Scottish MPs does not apply to the post-landslide situation since 1 May. If it were to happen, it would indeed raise questions for England - which may turn out to be to England's great advantage, as its own regions demand more say.

More difficult questions of what will happen in practice are raised by the referendum on a new government for London. Contrary to first appearances, the people of the capital will be asked to vote not primarily on whether there should be a new "slimline" GLC, but rather on whether there should be a directly elected mayor. It seems that the new-style mayor would have full executive power, leaving a small Greater London Authority as a talking- shop of "backbenchers". There is still an alarming lack of detail in Labour's plans which need to be dealt with in this autumn's green paper. Would the mayor have the power to appoint elected members of the authority to executive posts? What if the authority passes a vote of no confidence in the mayor? A directly elected mayor would be a welcome innovation, capable of reviving local government through the idea of personal accountability, but it could end in disarray if the relationship between mayor and authority is not crystal clear. Wisely, the Government has decided that the referendum will not be held until details have been sorted out and the Bill passed by the Commons.

The blessing, though, is that the people affected will be consulted. Let us hope it turns out to be a democracy-enhancing experience.