The referendum: “the weapon of entrenchment” can be a two edged sword

2nd March 2013

Gabriele has discussed below some of the implications of what Vernon Bogdanor has identified as the new constitutional convention of the referendum. One of the bonuses of a Vernon event is the way he blithely throws in a few extra goodies into the mix in the Q&A.  On referendums, Vernon is much more advocate than sceptic . For instance, the Lib Dems, he claims, would have been better to have demanded a referendum on Lords reform as well as AV. To extend  the point, that could have been quite a good wheeze  especially if both government parties had more boldly  embraced the referendum as a new  constitutional instrument for stabilising the coalition over major matters  of dispute between them. It might not have been such a foregone conclusions as the AV result. But even if they’d lost a Lords referendum too,  the Lib Dems could have shrugged off part of the political damage and said: “the people have spoken the bastards.” At least instead of feeling so sorry for themselves  over their rough treatment by the Conservatives in the  AV referendum , with two referendums lost they could at least have proclaimed the new convention rather than leaving it to Vernon to declare it.

How might the convention develop?

The 1997 Scottish and Welsh devolution settlements and Northern Ireland agreement of 1998 had the zeitgeist behind them, with Scottish independence and maybe Europe to come, whatever the final results. But entrenching the referendum isn’t necessarily a gift to democracy.  The requirement for a referendum to approve an increase in council tax above 2 % looks like central government intimidation and is being skirted round by English many councils. There are risks too as under the codified Irish Constitution, which requires referendums for any significant change to EU treaties.

Could we conceivably find ourselves in the situation of the people returning the “wrong” verdict as the Irish memorably did over the Lisbon Treaty in 2008? “Strong” government required the Irish people to think again and the people, amazingly, obliged, as the Daily Mail furiously lamented at the time. The first verdict was a foreboding of financial crisis to come, as the Irish people were more troubled by the impact of a strong euro than their government appeared to be at the time.  But then the Irish are accustomed to referendums over all sorts of issues even over judicial pay and several times over abortion. The referendum has become a natural part of the Irish national conversation. The UK has a long way to go before we reach that point, if ever. Might it be reached over Europe in 2017 and beyond?  A single referendum tends not to settle  great questions.

But before you ask: no, I don’t think a Labour dominated coalition in an independent Scotland would demand an early re-run of the 2014 referendum in the unlikely event that Scots vote for separation. But later? Who can tell?

About Brian Walker
Hon Senior Research Fellow and press officer, the Constitution Unit; freelance journalist, blogger, Slugger O'Toole. Formerly BBC Editor Political and Palriamentary programmes; BBC Radio Current Affairs Commissioning Editor; Political Editor and Current Affairs TV BBC N Ireland; London Editor Belfast Telegraph.

2 Responses to The referendum: “the weapon of entrenchment” can be a two edged sword

  1. What is also needed is a clear set of topics that constitute constitutional questions and some thoughts on this have been given in various Lords Committees. Countries with a codified constitution often stipulate what constitutional bills are and they have two thirds majorities and sometimes there are provisions in the constitution for when a referendum is obligatory. Often the referendum is not called for such reasons but is a tactical instrument to avoid a split in a party or deblock an issue in a coalition government. An important point is who or what has the authority to kick off a referendum since the timing is all important. Britian with the Electoral Commission at least has some clear rules of the game for the running of the referendum once its in full swing and this sort of body is missing in other countries with less referendum experience

  2. Pingback: Video: What Place for the Referendum in the UK? | constitutionunitdotcom

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