With all the controversy at the present time about referendums in Catalonia, it seems worth looking at their history in Great Britain. They can and have been held at a national, regional and local level. However, national referendums tend to be very rare due to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty as well as having been considered “unconstitutional” until quite recently. In fact, only three have been held, in 1975, 2011 and 2016.
Two of these were held on Britain’s relationship with the EU. The first, in 1975, was called the “European Communities membership referéndum” and was held two years after Britain had become a member. It was the first ever national referendum. Forty-one years later, the British public were asked to vote on continuing its membership and was popularly known as “Brexit”. In 2011, there was a referendum to decide on an alternative voting system for parliamentary elections and up to now it has been the only one about a domestic issue. There have been eleven others related to countries within the UK and the public voted on devolution, sovereignty and independence. The most recent being the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum which had the largest turnout ever for a referendum in the UK (84.59%). Of course, there have been countless other referendums held by local councils on a variety of issues.
Until quite recently, referendums were fiercely opposed by governments. Winston Churchill wanted one on the issue of extending the wartime Coalition but Clement Attlee vehemently argued that “I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum, which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and Fascism”. Margaret Thatcher said of them in 1975 that they were “a device of dictators and demagogues”.
Referendums in the UK are not legally binding so, in effect, the Government can ignore the result. Parliament must approve a referendum to take place and it is not necessary for it to take a stance on the issue involved, although it usually does. David Cameron campaigned against leaving the EU in 2014. He lost out and it cost him his job.
In fact, Parliament could reverse legislation approved by a referendum because parliamentary sovereignty means that no future Parliament can amend or repeal legislation. However, in practice this would be unprecedented and “un-British”.
No doubt, particular political parties are against any type of popular consultation because it gives the public the opportunity to express their opinion in the ballot box and fear they resemble instruments of Communist workers’ councils and the like. However, when General Elections are held, they don’t quibble because electoral systems usually work in favour of the major parties, whereas referendums are based on “one ‘man’, one vote” and “Yes” or “No”.
Referendums seem to be a reliable way of measuring and confirming public feeling and opinion on vital national issues which concern the common good rather than specific political or market preferences, although influential lobbies are usually lurking in the shadows to make their voice heard. As long as referendums are held within a legal constitutional framework, whether national or interstate, they are, without doubt necessary for a fair and just democracy. Of course, the result should be upheld and respected by all sides involved.
Happy English learning!!