Monday, 9 November 2015

Poetry: Questioning the EU Referendum

Editorial note: “Many readers outside Europe will not have heard of Britain’s plan to vote on whether or not to stay in the European Union – nor indeed may any who have care very much. But Chengde’s thoughts apply not only to a single referendum, but to democracy itself.  They apply to every item we buy in the shop, every deposit someone makes at a bank.”

A poem by Chengde Chen 

Questioning the Referendum

Britain is split by whether to remain in the EU or not
but very much united over the way of resolution
All the parties have agreed to settle it by a referendum –
let the people decide – the great principle seems indisputable
Yet, there’re two questions like a fish-bone stuck in my throat:
is it true that people always understand their own interests?
is it democracy to vote on things the voters don’t understand?

Democracy contains two elements that are linked
One, people have the right to vote for their own interests
Two, voters should know what their interests are –
only such voters can really exercise their right to vote
Children can’t vote, as they don’t understand their interests
Nor can mental patients, as they may not know theirs either
To ask people to vote on things they don’t understand
is to let the blind select colour or the deaf judge music

Do ordinary folks always understand their own interests?
With the increase in scale and complexity of society
there are issues beyond most people’s comprehension
For such matters, adults are in fact ‘children’ –
sufficient age does not mean sufficient knowledge

Although knowledge can be obtained through education
not all that is needed can be given by a short course

How would voting be affected by ignorance?
Operational research shows that
if there is a correct choice, ignorance reduces its chances
When a thousand vote on an issue understood only by ten
the rationality of the 1% will be drowned in the sea of ignorance
So, when doctors are divided over a surgical procedure
the hospital refers it to an expert panel, not a referendum
People need specialists’ help for their democracy
just as they need their GPs and solicitors

Whether Britain should stay in the European Union
is an extremely complex matter that is highly technical
Either way has countless advantages and disadvantages –
many many economic, political, and cultural concerns
many many short, medium, and long term consequences
Some effects may be foreseen, while most are not…
an overall understanding takes sophisticated calculation
 (Some want to leave the EU because they dislike Germans
as if they could go to war with Scots because of their kilts!)

If the principle of not allowing children to vote is right
to use a referendum to determine the EU matter is wrong
Parliament shirking its responsibility in the name of democracy
is like a pilot handing over his plane to the passengers in that name!

The matter should be decided by a certain ‘expert democracy’
for example, to let a thousand economists vote on it
Although this won’t guarantee a correct decision
it will be a more scientific one, rooted in reason

I do not, of course, expect the country to heed my advice
so I leave this poem to those heading for the ballot box
A ballot box is the symbol of democracy
but its slot should be guarded by knowledge
Voting with knowledge is democracy with reason
while a box of ignorance is a political dustbin

Britain did not have Confucius, but can have his words:
‘Understanding is understanding, and not so is not so’
A rational man shouldn’t vote on things he doesn’t understand
while an abstainer can be proud of his or her rationality!


Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today: philosophical poems. Readers can find out more about Chengde and his poems here


  1. ‘Understanding is understanding, and not so is not so’

    - I love the style of the Analects. How can saying something so tautological be worthwhile? But, yet, we know what he means...

  2. Who does understand their own interests? And who then is an expert? On what basis are he experts sure to be right? And are decisions, too, not merely part of a process? I myself have served (led) Churches for more than thirty years which practice direct democracy. Everybody may propose anything, and vote on anything (with a few constraints on haste). One often hears, in this context, that the people know nothing. One often hears interpretations of their "true" intentions, when they voted. Yet the people may have uncanny insight. It is generally thought that the objective is to raise the people to the level of responsible decision making. Yes, this can end with disaster. Yet so can decision-making which lies with the experts. The few disasters I have experienced with direct democracy, I would put down to deeper things: concealed information, or a crumbling of the constitution.