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referenda

referenda. British politicians were traditionally reluctant to agree to referenda, fearing that they would weaken the power of Parliament to decide. In the 1890s a UK referendum was proposed to block Irish Home Rule, in 1910 Balfour suggested a referendum on tariff reform, and in 1945 Churchill considered a referendum on extending the life of Parliament. None took place. There is the problem that the vote may be less on the merits of the particular proposal than on the immediate popularity of the government: the timing of a referendum is therefore of crucial importance. Since many voters might abstain, either from apathy or principle, referenda have often been accompanied by conditions, demanding a positive vote by a certain proportion of the electorate and a certain size of turnout. There is the question which electorate should be consulted. For years referenda were discredited in the public mind by plebiscites organized by totalitarian governments which inevitably produced a gratifying majority. Nevertheless, they had attractions for governments on issues upon which they were badly split, acting, in Jim Callaghan's pithy phrase, ‘as a rubber life-raft’. Like most innovations referenda were introduced into British politics with little regard for the long-term implications.

In 1973 a referendum for Northern Ireland on continued membership of the UK produced a 98 per cent support of those voting. But since the catholics boycotted the vote, it decided little, nor was it clear why the other citizens of the UK were not entitled to vote, the outcome of which might have been different. The 1975 referendum on membership of the European Economic Community produced a strong yes vote, but as the powers of the EEC increased, demands for a fresh referendum were heard. The 1979 referendum on devolution resulted in a simple majority in favour in Scotland, but not the 40 per cent of the electorate required, while in Wales the proposal was defeated by 4:1. But referenda in 1997 produced approval for a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly, both of which were established.

EEC leaders have sometimes shown a distinctly cavalier attitude towards referenda, and when the Danes in 1992 and the Irish in 2001 voted ‘the wrong way’, suggested that they must think again. At the heart of the increasing reliance on referenda is dissatisfaction felt by many voters at the difficulty in registering their opinion on a specific issue amid the many other issues brought up at a general election. Voters and minority groups may continue to press for referenda as a form of direct democracy, perhaps in the shape of the ‘initiatives’ allowed in many US states. But governments are likely to be less enthusiastic.

Christopher N. Lanigan/ and Professor J. A. Cannon

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