John Rentoul asks what difference do Referendums make anyway?

There are fewer Slugger posts which have proven their worth over time as well as Paul Evans’ 2010 piece on Referendums. It currently stands at 8,610 views on a counter we only installed in 2013.

Now it’s inspired The Independent’s John Rentoul into writing a two part post on Referendums and  whether they are in fact compatible with the UK’s unwritten constitution

He writes…

If we had refused to have referendums, the outcomes would probably have been the same. The promise of a referendum on the voting system had originally been made by John Smith, Blair’s predecessor. Instead of a referendum, Smith might have promised a review and to put its recommendation in the following manifesto, which Blair would probably have decided against.

The euro referendum was originally promised by John Major: he would probably have promised that any recommendation to join the euro would have to be put to the people at a general election. And Blair would almost certainly have shied away from a manifesto commitment to join the euro at his second election.

As for the the EU Constitution, the French referendum might not have been held, but the Dutch would probably have gone ahead with theirs, and the Czechs and the Danes were going to have referendums too, which were both likely to have been lost.

Even with the EU’s history of trying to persuade smaller countries to repeat referendums until they produced the right answer, the Constitution would almost certainly have failed anyway.

I wonder how he deals with the Brexit issue. More tomorrow, I hope…


  • kensei

    Both links go to the same place.

    NB – this is an improvement on actually linking your favourite referendum hobbyhorse.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I disagree that they don’t make a difference, what they do is show the people’s willingness to follow and contribute to a particular policy. It’s unfair to attack referendums because the result isn’t what you wanted.

    The biggest problem with referendums comes from the aftermath, if the status quo wins it relies on reformers improving within the current political structures, if the alternative side wins it relies on delivering the alternative. The inherent problems are if the status quo wins, political backers can get complacent … if the alternative side win, its political backers can get negligent. If either happens it undermines the social contract the referendum is won upon.

  • Brian Walker

    A rather weird counterfactual exercise on referendums not held, particularly in countries which have referendums in their written constitution. As so often, the writer falls down in a casual reference to Northern Ireland.

    “Blair also held a referendum in Northern Ireland on the Belfast Agreement, although that was largely symbolic.”


    I look forward to his thoughts on Brexit and on the appropriate criteria for future referendums. If Rentoul thinks Brexit was inevitable without a referendum, does he oppose a referendum to try to reverse it ?

  • chioma

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