(Written in the immediate aftermath of the vote to leave the EU)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book "The Social Contract" (1743) argued that the whole principle of democracy was the hope that a majority of the people, when consulted, would always reach the right decision: the one which was best for the country. If the popular majority reached the wrong decision, he said, then the whole system collapses. Rousseau was writing about what is nowadays called "direct democracy", where the people are consulted about all important decisions, as in the recent referendum. He called the British political system "elective aristocracy", meaning that every so often we choose what leaders we want, and then send them away to make decisions on our behalf until the next election. He did not think such a system was as good, but believed direct democracy could really only work in a small, homogenous community.
Until the current spate of referendums, Britain did not have direct democracy; instead we had government by elected representatives. The great conservative political thinker, Edmund Burke, writing half a century after Rousseau, discussed the vexed question of whether an elected M.P. was under any obligation always to follow the wishes of his constituents. His answer was a strong "No". His argument was that an M.P. was not a mere delegate or mouthpiece: his job was to exercise his judgement to choose a policy which he believed was in the best interests, not only of his constituents, but of the entire country. Should his constituents object to his decisions, they reserved the right to chuck him out at the next election. He could also have added that an M.P. is probably more intelligent than most of his constituents, and is certainly better informed about the issues!
The philosopher Roger Scruton (a philosopher with whom I am not often in agreement!) gave an interesting talk on the radio last week in which he attacked the whole idea of holding a referendum. It was, he argued, an abdication of responsibility by those elected to lead us. What, after all, is a Prime Minister for, if not make decisions on our behalf to the best of his ability? If he insists on holding a referendum, with a promise to abide by the result, then he is abandoning his decision-making role and reducing himself to a mere functionary or mouthpiece, and may well, as has befallen David Cameron, find himself having to commit to a policy which he believes to be wrong for the country. That is no way for a serious leader to behave! I'm reminded of a story told by the historian A.J.P.Taylor about the 1848 revolution in Paris, where a man was seen running after a crowd of demonstrators, shouting "I'm their leader, I must catch up with them!"
The only reason for a government to hold a referendum is if it expects to win it, thus strenthening its ability to carry through a contentious policy. De Gaulle in France was successful at this, and Hitler was even more so: his more outrageous actions, like the assumption of the Presidency, the remilitaization of the Rhineland and the Anschluss with Austria, were promptly supported by enormous referendum majorities from the populations involved, thereby making it difficult for other countries to take action. The unfortunate David Cameron, by contrast, called a referendum solely to try to paper over a split in the Tory party. He miscalculated severely, and serve him right! Do you recall the A. A. Milne story where Winnie-the-Pooh digs a trap to catch a heffalump, only to fall into it himself? Cameron as Pooh!
Postscript: A friend has pointed out to me that inthe end De Gaulle called one referendum too many, lost it, and had to resign. We could say the same about Cameron. The difference is that De Gaulle's proposal was then abandoned, whereas Cameron has left his successors to implement a policy which all party leaders, all former prime ministers and a large majority of MPs believe is bad for the country. Bizarre!