Public Address today has a guest column by Michael Wallmansberger of the Campaign for Civil Unions on why he opposed a referendum on the bill. Some of the reasons - such as not wanting to waste time "responding to... hatred and irrational bile" - are poor. But the fundamental one is one I can wholeheartedly endorse: we should not be having referenda on whether people are entitled to justice and equality under the law. Those who are currently denied such fundamental rights should not have to beg to be treated in the same way as everybody else.
More generally, the risk of majoritarian tyranny is the great problem for refereda, and why I oppose them without safeguards to protect minority rights - just as I oppose regular legislation without such safeguards. No law - whether passed by popular vote or elected representatives - should be allowed to deny people justice and equal treatment, target specific individuals for punishment, or turn them into second-class citizens. These things are simply beyond the authority (but sadly not the power) of government.
Despite this risk, I think the case for greater use of referenda is strong. Fundamentally, they are about people governing themselves and choosing the shape of their society - an ideal which lies at the heart of democracy. And greater participation is something we should encourage because, as George Monbiot points out in The Age of Consent, it creates a positive feedback cycle:
democracy has the potential to be politically engaging. The more politically active citizens become, the more they are able to affect the way the state is run. The more success they encounter in changing the state, the more likely they are to remain politically active.
The more we use tools like referenda, the more reponsive our state will be, and the easier it will be to hold power to account. And that I think is something worth promoting.