Margaret Thatcher, quoting Clement Attlee, once described referendums "a device of dictators and demagogues".
She was right.
A referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union was always a bad idea and it has had an unlovely effect on our politics - or at least revealed a side of it that is usually well buried.
For a discussion of that effect I recommend articles by Alex Massie and the great Neal Ascherson.
Reader's voice: Come off it! You are only saying this because you are afraid your side is going to lose.
I have been saying the same thing for many years. Most substantially, as far as I can recall, in this article for the much-missed Liberal Democrat News in 2011:
For years the main parties have engaged in something close to a conspiracy. The issue of Europe has been taken out of general elections, with the promise that it will be decided through a referendum. Those referendums never take place. The result has been an infantilisation of debate on Europe, as politicians are allowed to take up self-indulgent, extreme positions they know they will never have to defend to the electorate.
This process has been bad for us Liberal Democrats, encouraging the idea that all we need do to prosper is not offend anybody and deliver lots and lots of leaflets. And it has been bad for democracy as a whole. Why should voters feel enthusiastic about Westminster when their representatives avoid talking about one of the most important issues facing the country?But don't take my word for it: read a guest post by Paul Evans on Slugger O'Toole, the best blog on Northern Ireland politics.
In 2010 he gave 14 reasons why the move to introduce referendums to British politics should be resisted, The European referendum campaign has proved he was right in every case.
Here are a couple of examples:
- They drive out the deliberative element in policymaking. The referendum question is an appeal to reflexes rather than an attempt to get a thoughtful response from the public.
I am a believer in representative government - what George Watson called The English Ideology. It is the cornerstone of our constitution.
- They hand enormous powers to newspaper proprietors and people with the finances to take one side of the argument. It also hands the reins of government over to unelected and well-heeled pressure groups.
The Conservative Party used to be united by its belief in upholding that constitution. Today, most of its members, and many of its MPs, would rather scribble on it.