Are We Being Referendumb? | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Are We Being Referendumb?

In the wake of #RepealThe8th, TV Editor Matt Dawson questions whether referendums can accurately portray the will of the people

Following a recent public referendum, Ireland collectively voted to repeal the 8th Amendment of their constitution regarding legal abortion. Current legislation means that the life of the unborn foetus is placed as equal to that of the women, and abortion is only considered when the life of the mother is at risk. It does not consider cases of rape, incest or if the child’s life could be in danger. But now, thanks to the voice of the public, 66.4% of people decided to make a change to this outdated rule. However, of all the people that voted, they only represented 64.5% of the Irish population, making it the referendum with third-highest turnout in the country’s history. This raises the question: how effective really is public voting?

How effective really is public voting?

The UK itself is not shy of referendums. In the past seven years, we have seen four of them to address issues of Welsh governance, the introduction of an alternative voting system, Scottish independence and, of course, the departure from the European Union. But essentially all of these, Brexit in particular, have consisted of boiling down complex issues to a simple yes or no answer in the name of democracy, without actually solving the problem at hand.

Brexit...consisted of boiling down complex issues to a simple yes or no answer in the name of democracy

Following the aftermath of the vote in June 2016, several Leave voters have claimed to regret their decision, as a response to the economic and political uncertainty that has succeeded this result. Much like the decision for independence in Scotland, many of the politicians seemed like they believed that Remain would win out, changing little of the status quo. Instead, Brexit triggered a snowball of events including the Prime Minister’s resignation, Nigel Farage back-tracking on his claims that the NHS would directly benefit from leaving the EU, and a follow-up general election to consolidate Theresa May’s power during these not-so-strong-and-stable times.

Yet now, almost two years on and with little progress made, the UK is still regarded as an international laughing stock. International opinion towards our country has plummeted due to Brexit, with one of the few countries still favouring the vote to leave being the USA, the same country that elected Donald Trump as their president under similar knee-jerk circumstances. But even now, that promised trade deal looks all the more elusive as the machinery of politics proving to be more complex than a simple cross in a box.

The referendum in Ireland could suffer a similar fate. While it may seem currently like a victory for progress and the liberal movement against archaic values, it is fundamental that this spirit does not get lost or diminished in the motions of democracy. This is without considering the factor of the Catholic Church, which still maintains a significant presence in Irish society, although this result cements the fact that it is waning. Pope Francis has remained silent on the matter, although the Archbishop of Armagh has called the results saddening but not out of the blue. Hopefully, this signals the shift away from religious views in matters of politics, but as we live in a democratic society, religious institutions will always have some say in the matter.

It is fundamental that this spirit does not get lost or diminished in the motions of democracy

Referendums have also had an impact away from the UK and Ireland, most notably in Catalonia. However, this call for independence caused controversy not only because of it raising matters of national identity but also of its legitimacy. Despite a landslide majority of those in favour of the Spanish autonomous region splitting away from the mainland, the central government in Madrid insisted that, as it was not sanctioned by them, the results held no weight. It even reached levels of police brutality at polling stations, intimidating people into not voting. As the turnout was only 42.3%, it could be argued that this was the voice of a vocal minority and not representative of what the Catalans really want.

But that comes down to the essential flaw in making decisions based on referendums: the general public are forced to pigeon-hole themselves into a frequently binary choice, instead of examining the matter at hand from a varied spectrum of perspectives. This can result in complicated political and ethical dilemmas being oversimplified, leading to situations where the public are led to believe that these issues will be resolved by favouring one thing over another. Turnout is not mandatory, meaning that the referendum will never be representative of the general consensus anyway, and can favour some opinionated individuals to skew the perception of the vox populi. But this is democracy, which, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is the worst form of decision-making, except from all the others.


Final year Modern Languages student, TV Editor, using student journalism as a post-Erasmus coping mechanism. (@mdawson_96)


14th June 2018 at 9:00 am

Last Updated

13th June 2018 at 6:44 pm

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Quinn Dombrowski