THE march in London at the weekend in support of a second EU referendum was a delight for fans of satire and logic. The wittiest of the placards was the one inspired by Banksy that featured a partly-shredded Leave leaflet, but all the posters and speeches made the same logical point: there were no detailed plans for Brexit in 2016 so there should be another vote when the plans are clearer. And is it any wonder that the protests were the biggest since the Iraq demo in 2003? We went to war on a lie 15 years ago, and now here we are being taken out of the EU on another one.

However, whatever happens next – and the UK Government says there will be no second referendum even as the momentum for one builds – I do hope we take this chance to think about referendums in general and what we’ve learned from the fact that the last two decades have been filled with them. Before 1975 there was not a single national referendum in the UK, and yet in the years since there’s been a grand total of ten and the rate seems to be speeding up. It’s as if a country that’s based, wisely, on the principle of representative democracy has developed, worryingly, a fetish for direct democracy through popular votes on single issues.

The reason we should be worried by this trend is obvious: politicians. Referendums are sold as a way to resolve important public issues, but what they’re usually really about is petty private disputes. Harold Wilson held the first national referendum in 1975 not because he particularly cared about Europe but because Labour was divided and he needed to see off a rebellion by the hard-left Eurosceptic Tony Benn. And it worked: had Benn’s side won the referendum, he might well have gone on to take the Labour leadership.

The same applies to pretty much every other referendum held since, particularly the ones ordered by one of their greatest fans, David Cameron. In 2011, he ordered a poll on the voting system not because he wanted to discuss reform, but because he needed to keep Nick Clegg on side. Then, in 2014, there was a vote on Scottish independence not because Mr Cameron wanted to encourage a constitutional debate, but because he wanted to arrest a rise in support for the SNP. And finally, in 2016, Mr Cameron ordered a vote on Europe not because he was worried about the status quo, but because his party was divided. He did it all because he thought it would be good for his career and because he thought he would win.

This is basically how every referendum has always worked, whether it’s in the UK or elsewhere: a politician has a problem they need to fix, or an enemy they want to undermine, or they want to attract support for a decision they have already made and so they order a referendum. Not even referendums that are seemingly uncontroversial are immune, such as the 1997 vote on Scottish devolution. Do you really think Labour promised the referendum for any other reason than to avoid the Tories being able to say that a vote for Labour in the 1997 election was a vote to break up the Union?

There are plenty of other questions we should be asking ourselves about how referendums work. For instance, if they are supposed to be festivals of democracy, how come they often end up being about one or two individuals or hinging on what a handful of politicians say in the newspapers, or write on the side of a bus? In what way, exactly, is it democratic to give disproportionate power to a small elite of pushy alpha males, often pushing the same dubious points? And how is it a good idea to reduce complicated questions to yes or no? And why do referendums that are apparently designed to solve problems so often create new ones?

For those who support continued membership of the EU, the truth of all of this can be seen in the 2016 referendum and its chaotic aftermath; Unionists can see it too in the constant constitutional agitating of the SNP ever since the 2014 vote. Part of the explanation is the relatively close results – Leavers attracted 51.89 per cent of the vote in 2016 and Unionists 55.30 per cent in 2014 which means it’s been hard to portray the results of the referendums as the end of the matter. Instead, referendums just beget more referendums.

The obvious answer would be to require bigger majorities. In the US, constitutional change needs support from two-thirds of the Senate and the House of Representatives – so why not consider something similar for the UK? Certainly, requiring two-thirds support at Westminster and Holyrood would avoid the situation in which the SNP can claim to have a mandate for a referendum on independence on the basis of a slim majority at Holyrood even though there is little support for it in the general population.

And a super-majority in parliament is not the only reform we should consider. The 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution is notorious for being set up to fail with a requirement that 40 per cent of the eligible electorate had to vote for change and I don’t think anyone would ever suggest a repeat of that. But there’s a strong argument for a referendum option to require support from two-thirds of those who vote. That way, the result can properly be seen as reflecting the popular will and avoids the kind of close outcome that only leads to more trouble.

Obviously, all of these problems would apply to the so-called people’s vote that the protesters were calling for in London, but until we can properly reform the process, it looks like one of the few possible routes to a rethink. The concept of a second referendum is also another of the reforms that should be considered for the future. Ideally, referendums would only be held if there were detailed plans or legislation on the proposed changes, and if no such plan exists, there would need to be a further referendum later. That would mean we could avoid a repeat of 2016 when we all voted yes or no to a plan that didn’t exist. However, the bad news for Scottish nationalists is that it would also mean that if, one day, there is an indyref2, there would have to be an indyref3 as well.