Leading US historian Jared Diamond said Brexit was too complex to be decided by referendum and should have been left in the hands of elected representatives, not voters.
The US historian said both individuals and nations could solve crises by “having a model of someone or a country who had a similar problem and solved it successfully”.
He made the comments while speaking at the Hay festival on Saturday about his latest book, Upheaval, an analysis of world crises.
Britain had “little experience” with national referendums before the 2016 vote, he said, having only held two: the 1975 vote to remain in the European common market, and the 2011 vote on the UK’s parliamentary voting system. However, he said, in 2016 Britain could have looked overseas for examples of best practice among them Italy, which has held more than 70 national referendums since 1946. Some of these have included divisive social issues, such as divorce and abortion, key to shaping the national identity of the country at the heart of Catholicism.
Diamond said that from these, one has experience which subjects that are suitable for referendum and not. “Subjects that are suitable for referendum are issues of society values that do not involve complicated questions of economics.”
Italy’s history of referendum questions were excellent, he said. “They were not complicated, and Italians voted strongly to figure out: ‘who are we?’ But Brexit has the disadvantage: yes it involves national identity, something about which you feel strongly, but it also involves very complicated issues of economics. That’s a subject for which you elect representatives, representatives who will deal with these complications and crawl off to a corner to learn all this stuff. It’s not an issue to present to voters.”