Alerted by Mick on the thoughts on referendums by the Independent’s political commentator John Rentoul, I took in his part 2 “Should Referendums be banned?” This is a rhetorical question which is really in support of Rentoul’s contention that they make very little difference to the course of political events. His pieces prompted my following thoughts.
Referendums like terrorism typically make considerable differences but not necessarily as intended. It is not true they never settle anything. It depends on the particular question asked of voters at a particular time.
They are usually seen as rising above party politics to try to settle questions in which politicians may be said to have conflicts of interest, like the electoral system. In fact, one of the purposes of holding referendums is to try to settle differences within parties. This happened over devolution for Scotland and Wales in 1997 and over both referendums on the EU, for Labour in 1975 and the Conservatives in 2016. In all cases there were unintended consequences. The 1975 referendum did not prevent a Labour split and did not as we know settle the question of Europe. Indeed it set a precedent for asking the question again if only after 41 years.
Asking the question too frequently can produce referendum fatigue as in Quebec. That is the dilemma currently facing Nicola Sturgeon or republican efforts to abolish the monarchy in Australia. Ireland as we know presents a different case which goes to show there is no simple rule of referendums. But we can see they are highly political devices everywhere.
As a result of UK referendums we can probably conclude that devolution is forever. But for sure, the 1997 referendum did not kill off pressure for Scottish independence “stone dead.” In Wales the 1997 referendum scraped home with a 0.6 % majority on a 50% turnout but appears to have whetted the public appetite for more powers for the National Assembly of Wales.
On Northern Ireland Rentoul was surely wrong yesterday to describe the 1998 referendum as “largely symbolic”. It was a hugely significant cross-community milestone, although carried narrowly on the unionist side, and almost certainly prevented long and bitter suspensions of the Assembly becoming outright abolition.
Rentoul’s analysis of Cameron’s position is disputable. I believe he underestimates the Conservatives’ instinct for power. In last year’s general election Cameron judged that the promise of a referendum was necessary to unify his party and stave off a UKIP threat. A serious split was always unlikely and it was proper tactics to try to win a majority, although the greater likelihood – (and greater in his view than Labour as the largest single party) – was another Con-Lib Dem coalition. He was surprised to win a narrow majority and he misjudged its significance. For either way he expected to win the referendum for Remain, if perhaps narrowly.
Rentoul’s running contention that support for withdrawal would have gradually become stronger in England without the safety valve of a referendum is certainly plausible. It still would have depended on the mix of factors that influenced the majority of referendum voters, led by the state of economy and attitudes to immigration. Whether Labour would have dealt with these better than the Tories in coalition or alone, is moot. His scenario of a Labour minority government is discussed without reference to the SNP whose pro- EU support would have been necessary to sustain it.
What is at issue over referendums is not their existence. They are here to stay in the UK although we can be sure, they will be used very sparingly. But Cameron was bluffing. In a democracy the result need not be “forever.” However a rare people’s vote on a decision to hold it by parliament which transcends party allegiance on a single issue however mixed up with other issues, suggests that the result will be longer lasting than a mere election, which must in any case be held every five years.
Even so the UK is very unlikely to feature referendums like Ireland where they have held 28 referendums since 1937 and are a familiar part of the written constitution. They are also intrinsically part of politics, and are often held in cases where governments would quite like to see a certain outcome, but don’t want to lay their lives on the line to achieve it. I suspect we can write off any suggestion of a British version of the two Irish referendums on the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 and 2009.
There is one other unintended consequence that is now being played out. The referendum is an instrument of direct democracy which is now in contention with the representative democracy of parliament. A battle may be played out in the courts, as advocates of parliament taking the final decision (who tend to be Remain supporters as well as a constitutional purists), try to commit the UK government to hold a parliamentary vote to approve Brexit, implying the possibility of overturning the referendum verdict on reconsideration. The referendum, they argue, was necessarily only consultative under British constitutional norms. What difference it would make if they won the cases remains to be seen. MPs are sure to have some sort of vote on the Brexit plans as they emerge, and few MPs are likely to defy the verdict of their voters in the referendum .
The Brexit referendum can be bracketed with the growing power of direct democracy in political parties like Labour, which faces an existential struggle between its half a million plus record new membership and the nine million strong public mandate of its MPs. You don’t need to be much of a futurologist to see that the ability of the individual citizen to take snap decisions at the click of a mouse could catch on. Not all of them need be Trots. All those who fear the result risk being dismissed like the conservatives ( small “C” or not) of yesteryear, who warned of dire results if all adults were ever to get the vote. It’s an uncomfortable thought for the supporters of parliamentary government. Just now, make no mistake, they are on the defensive.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London