It may not seem like an obvious question to pose but just occasionally the actions of our political leaders do lead me to ask exactly who won the civil war. Was it parliament - who had the organisation and the strong views, or was it the King who had popular support, emotion and divine right on his side. Conventionally we pretend that Parliament won and that representative democracy is the result. Those who did not believe we had gone far enough had round two in 1776 and split the nation into a Republic on one side of the Atlantic and a Kingdom on the other - but both maintained the principle of representative government.
It was this principle that the civil war (and indeed the American Revolution) were fought on. Sometimes expressed as 'no taxation without representation' and interpreted in slightly different ways on each side of the Atlantic, but for nearly 400 years the intellectual case for representative government has been unchallenged. Perhaps it is the long period of democracy which makes us so careless today but we should make no mistake - referenda are the antithesis of representative government and they threaten the foundations of our society.
The reason they do so is that there is a profound difference between majoritarianism, where the view of the majority is imposed on the minority, and representative democracy, where we select from amongst us individuals to sit in parliament (or Congress) to deliberate on matters of state and decide, in the full knowledge of the background and possible consequences (we hope), what the best course of action is. Not the most popular, not even that which was in their manifesto, but that which seems right at the time. As Churchill pointed out, this is a terrible way of governing ourselves - but every other way tried by mankind is worse.
In particular referenda are the weapons of choice for demagogues, despots and dictators. There are several ways in which this can be illustrated, but the underlying reasons are that if you choose the question carefully and select the right electorate at the right time you can probably get the result you want. Perhaps the best practitioner of the loaded question in recent times was Charles de Gaulle who used referenda to impose his vision of effective government on France. Wonderfully successfully - partly because if the French got the answer wrong he would first ask them again, pointing out that he was all that stood between them and chaos ("après moi, le deluge"). You could argue that in one sense De Gaulle was actually the embodiment of representative democracy - it was just he was the sole representative. But the same power was used by Hitler to take total control, and even occasionally by Stalin to give a veneer of democracy to his totalitarian regime.
The reason majoritarianism, or rule by popular prejudice, is always dangerous is perhaps best summed up in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's words "then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me." We are all minorities and a demagogue can always find a majority who will oppress a minority. All too often with a referendum he can define the terms and conditions so that a minority decides the fate of the majority.
A small minority of Scots are likely to decide on Scotland's independence - as they did on devolution in both Wales and Scotland. It is perhaps worth noting that part of De Gaulle's legacy is that half a million French in London get to vote - but not a single one of the millions of Scots outside Scotland will be given a voice. But the reason that the referendum is so useful as a tool for dictators is that not only is the electorate probably fixed but the question can be altered to give a positive message and deliver the desired result. The Scottish referendum will ask "do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? ". This has been carefully chosen to contain a positive message. Independence is a positive word and no-one has ever proposed that Scotland should not be a separate country with its own legal and religious establishment under its own (but shared with several other counties) monarch. If the question were "Do you agree we should break up the United Kingdom, stop having British passports and replace the Queen by Gordon Brown or another old politician? " the message would be rather less positive even though the net effect is identical.
Even in Cambridge you can see the corrosive effects of referenda at work - millions of pounds is being taken from city businesses as a result of a recent local referendum. Look at just how outrageous this result is: 33% of those eligible voted - of these 60% were in favour - so about one in five 'businesses' impose their will on the rest. If you look at prominent supporters you will find the majority will not even pay full rates or are taxpayer supported. If we assume that these again were 60% of those who voted in favour and on average they pay 50% of full rates then less than 10% of those who will pay for nearly £1m of administrators to organise others spending £2m to improve the city centre over the next 5 years in order to increase our pride and make us more welcoming as a City. A small minority were able to impose their will 'democratically' on those who will pay 90% of the cost. Such is the power of referenda!