Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018 | Last Update : 06:17 AM IST
A referendum is a general vote on a single political question, usually with a yes/no answer that the nation must provide.
Nations usually don’t directly take decisions. Democratic nations decide what they are to do through agents — meaning legislators. In places where the executive is elected directly, like the United States, the potential decision maker announces his or her intent to do such and such a thing and that manifesto becomes the basis for choosing them.
Once in office, they are expected to carry out the promises made in the manifesto. The complaint from American voters one hears of most often is that “Washington” does not change and does not listen to them. Candidates make promises but do not carry them out.
The reason is not that the politician ignores the electorate, but that once elected, his manifesto encounters reality. Mature democracies do not usually have the space for great change because it is rarely the case that the talents of one individual of genius are awaited.
The only time nations take decisions directly is through a referendum. A referendum is a general vote on a single political question, usually with a yes/no answer that the nation must provide.
In 2016, the citizens of the United Kingdom (meaning the residents of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) took part in a referendum. The question they had to answer was: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
Two boxes were provided below for the voter to tick with the options: “Remain in the European Union” and “Leave the European Union”.
As readers may know, the Britishers chose to leave the European Union, of which they had been a part since 1973, by around 52 per cent to 48 per cent.
The main reasons that Britishers wanted to leave Europe were two. First that their rural areas had seen a lot of migration from Eastern Europe, mainly Poland. This was legal migration. The idea of a European Union revolves around what is called the Four Freedoms. These are the free movement of goods, services, people and capital.
European citizens can stay, work in and invest wherever in Europe that they want to, without much restriction. They can also import and export from another European country without customs or any checks.
Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and over eight lakh of them today live and work in the United Kingdom. Many of them are unskilled or semi-skilled workers who labour on farms. There was some resentment towards such people, particularly in the rural areas that later voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the European Union, or “Brexit”, meaning the British exit from the EU.
The second reason that some Britishers felt offended was that the European Union has a common set of laws and rules that member states have to follow. For example on human rights. No EU state can have the death penalty, for example. In the area of business and commerce, the EU set up a list of common standards that all its member states had to follow.
Looking at it from the outside, it seems that these were beneficial things but to some Britishers it felt that this was an intrusion on their sovereignty. For these reasons, the British voted to leave the EU.
The Brexit vote happened more than two years ago, in June 2016. But the United Kingdom has still not managed to negotiate the terms of its new relationship with Europe. One of the most difficult sticking points is about Northern Ireland.
As we know, England is part of an island, to the left of the coast of Western Europe. To England’s left is another island, Ireland. This is divided into two parts. About 80 per cent of the country is the Republic of Ireland, which is an independent nation and member of the European Union. About 20 per cent is Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. The population of Northern Ireland has a mix of Protestants and Catholics unlike the Republic of Ireland which is almost entirely Catholic. The United Kingdom is of course mostly Protestant (under the Church of England). In many ways the issue resembles that of India, Kashmir and Pakistan.
Anyway, in 1998, meaning 20 years ago, after decades of fighting and killing, the three parties agreed to a peace called the Good Friday Agreement. Under it, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would be opened up fully and there would be free movement. Because both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom were members of the European Union, this made even more sense. For 20 years this arrangement was followed and peace has held.
Now with the United Kingdom wanting to leave the EU and its single market, the question of the border between the UK (including Northern Ireland) and the EU (including the Republic of Ireland) has reappeared.
Once the UK leaves, and this will happen at 11 am on March 29, 2019, there will have to be visa checks and customs checks between the two entities. This will inevitably produce the same sort of anger that led to the violence of the past when some Irish thought that they were being separated or being kept apart deliberately.
This is the sort of thing that the UK population had not fully considered when it decided to vote to leave the European Union. It will be fascinating to see how the UK is able to manage this problem and that of its access to the world’s best market, in a few months as it finds its way in the world alone.
A nation can take a quick decision in a fit of passion or excitement that can be damaging to itself in the long term. That is why, generally speaking, I think a referendum is not a good idea.