Reforming the Referendum

LONDON – World leaders’ reactions to the Brexit shock included one that shouldn’t be ignored – and from an unexpected source: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rather than exulting in the latest body blow to the European Union, Putin castigated Britain’s leaders for “arrogance and a superficial approach … to issues that are vital to their country and to Europe as a whole.”

Coming from Putin, this criticism of direct democracy might be dismissed as an authoritarian conceit. But there are states with impeccable democratic credentials that share his wariness, not least Germany, which has a constitutional prohibition on referenda, lest another demagogue should use them, as Hitler did, to extinguish democracy and the rule of law.

Brexit leader Boris Johnson, in his victory speech, offered a different view: the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU could be decided only by “putting it to the people.” So when are referenda appropriate in large modern democracies? The answer is that it depends on the question placed before voters.

We would do well to recall the two other referenda held in the UK in the last five years: over Scottish independence in 2014 and, much less memorably, over voting rules in 2011.