1. Citizens of reasonably free and reasonably democratic societies tend to underweight the value of stability. This is particularly the case when that society has been stable for a couple of decades or more, and so memories of previous instability are either foggy or non-existent.
2. The leader of a reasonably free and democratic society should overweight the value of stability. That is, in the absence of an overwhelming or unavoidable reason to do otherwise, he or she should strive to maintain the status quo at almost all cost. Put a bit crudely: A prime minister’s prime directive should be to defend the constitution.
3. The leader of a reasonably free and democratic society should never confuse intramural instability for national instability. That is, just because there are deep and existentially threatening cleavages within a political party, it does not mean there are similar cleavages within the nation that need attending to. Put differently: The party’s interest is almost never the national interest, and national stability should never be risked in order to stabilize the party.
4. By their very nature, referendums are instability-generating devices. (That is why, for example, they are held by separatist governments in Quebec, not federalist governments).
5. A referendum invariably involves one significant national group or groups gaining or retaining status at the expense of another significant national group or groups (The Cowen Theorem).
6. A referendum is never about the referendum question (The Hansonian Theorem). It always ends up being about something else.
7. It is the public who will decide what that referendum is about. The decision to call a referendum is therefore, a transfer of political leadership, and therefore agenda control from elected officials to the media, to the masses, and to assorted demagogues.
8. Just as a trial lawyer should never ask a witness a question to which they don’t already know the answer (The OJ Simpson Litmus), a political leader whose job it is to maintain stability should never call a referendum on a question to which he or she doesn’t already know how the public will vote.
9. In general, political leadership in a stable, reasonably free and democratic society should involve doing nothing by halves that can’t be done by quarters. That is, leaders like Mackenzie King and Jean Chretien are preferable to Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin. Doing nothing is almost always a better move than doing something.
10. Don’t scratch where it doesn’t itch. If it does itch, that isn’t necessarily a problem — most polities of any size and diversity itch all over the place. If the itch is a problem, there’s no reason for the leader to take ownership of the decision to scratch it. If someone has an itch that needs scratching, make them own it.