brexit uk polling station NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images

The Referendum Risk

The United Kingdom could be headed toward another "people's vote" on its withdrawal from the European Union. The UK reached this point as a result of one of the most serious risks, evident since the original Brexit vote in 2016, that referenda entail – namely, that they enable politicians to evade responsibility for consequential decisions.

OXFORD – Now that British Prime Minister Theresa May, facing certain defeat, has postponed Parliament’s vote on the deal she concluded with the European Union last month on the United Kingdom’s departure from the bloc, the case for a “people’s vote” – a second Brexit referendum – is gaining ground. But is a referendum really the right mechanism for settling political issues that the people’s elected representatives cannot or will not? 

Referenda give people a voice. That is their appeal in an era when people are angry and dissatisfied with the political establishment. But without rules, a referendum is little more than an invitation to a collective roar of anger. This must be distinguished from a national policy decision. The latter takes a careful weighing of everyone’s interests. That is not – and cannot be – the job of every citizen.

On some issues, what is good for one person might be very bad for others, and what is bad for others might end up being even worse for the individual. Most people do not have the time, interest, knowledge, access, or desire to gain a strong understanding of such considerations on issue after issue. Yet that is exactly what is needed to make decisions on behalf of an entire community.