Why the UK holds referendums: a look at past practice

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Since the first referendum in the UK above the local level was held in 1973, there have been three UK-wide referendums and ten referendums covering parts of the UK. In order to inform its recommendations about the circumstances in which referendums should be held, the Independent Commission on Referendums is examining the circumstances in which UK referendums have been held. In this post, Jess Sargeant explores the political history of referendums in the UK.

1973 Northern Irish Border Poll

The first non-local referendum in the UK, the 1973 Northern Irish border poll, followed the sharp deterioration in the security and political situation in the preceding years. When the UK government imposed direct rule, it pledged to hold a referendum on Northern Ireland’s future status within the UK. The purpose was to demonstrate public support for the Union, which would act as baseline for future negotiations. Although the referendum was largely boycotted by the Catholic population, the overwhelming vote (98.9%) in favour of remaining part of the UK was used legitimise the continuation of the constitutional status quo.

1975 European Economic Community membership referendum

The UK’s first national referendum was held just two years later, in 1975, on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). The UK had joined the EEC in 1973. In opposition, Labour was deeply divided on this. A referendum was first proposed in 1970 by Tony Benn, who opposed EEC membership. The idea gained little traction at the time, but future Prime Minister James Callaghan described it as ‘a rubber life-raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb’. Labour adopted the policy of putting EEC membership to a public vote in 1973, and this occurred after the party’s return to power in 1974. Continue reading

The latest special adviser data release: political control trumps technocratic measures of effectiveness

benjamin_yonghamish In December the government published its latest list of special advisers, revealing a small reduction in numbers under Theresa May compared to David Cameron’s 2015 government, with the reduction falling mostly on departments rather than the centre. In this post Ben Yong and Harmish Mehta examine the new list. They argue that by reducing the number of special advisers in departments Prime Minister May has prioritised political control over technocratic measures of effectiveness.

When Theresa May first became Prime Minister there were a number of reports (including in The Times, The Telegraph and Civil Service World) that she had insisted on a cap on the salaries of special advisers (spads) – which in effect would limit both the number and quality of spads appointed. This cap, the reports said, would deter good people from entering government. How true are these claims?

Just before Christmas, the government made its annual data release, setting out the number of spads and how they are distributed across government. There are now 83 spads in government; down from 95 under Cameron’s 2015 government, according to the data release. The centre (broadly defined as No. 10 and the Cabinet Office) has ‘lost’ just one spad; the key Whitehall departments have lost eleven (most significantly from the merging of BIS and DECC into BEIS; and in the Treasury). So there has been a drop in numbers, but this has fallen mostly on departments, not the centre. There has been the usual grumble about salaries and cost, but that is standard fare.

The bigger question is what all this says about May’s government, and more generally, British government. In popular parlance, spads are regarded as a waste of money and at worst, a pernicious breed of quasi-politicians. Within Westminster and Whitehall, however, they have long been accepted as part of British government. Spads are people the minister can completely trust, in a lonely and difficult role; they provide political advice of a kind that career civil servants often cannot; they can help coordinate government. It is this latter view of spads which informs some criticisms of May’s policy on spads (see The Spectator and The Telegraph). Limiting the number of spads and the kind of spads via a salary cap means limiting government effectiveness.

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The draft EU renegotiation deal: do national parliaments have a genuine red card?

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One element of David Cameron’s draft EU renegotiation deal, published on Tuesday, is a so-called ‘red card’ mechanism that would allow national parliaments to get together to block European legislation. Katarzyna Granat analyses the proposal by contrasting them with the mechanisms currently in force under the Lisbon Treaty. She argues that it is a compromise solution which does not threaten to disrupt the EU legislative procedure.

The draft decision of the Heads of State or Government, ‘A New Settlement for the United Kingdom within the European Union’, unveiled by Donald Tusk on February 2 2016 offers the first concrete vision of the changes to enhance the role of national parliaments under the UK’s renegotiation efforts.

Tusk’s proposal (Section C, points 2-3) envisions that reasoned opinions of national parliaments issued under Article 7.1 of Protocol No. 2 of the Lisbon Treaty ‘on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality’ should be ‘duly taken into account’ by all institutions participating in the EU decision-making procedures. In Tusk’s proposal national parliaments may submit reasoned opinions stating that an EU draft legislative act violates the principle of subsidiarity submitted within 12 weeks from the transmission of that draft. If these reasoned opinions represent more than 55% of votes allocated to national parliaments (i.e. at least 31 of the 56 available votes; two votes for each national parliament; in the case of a bicameral parliament, each of the two chambers has one vote; votes of parliaments of member states not participating in the adoption of the act at stake are not counted), the opinions will be ‘comprehensively discussed’ in the Council. If the EU draft legislative proposal is not changed in a way reflecting the concerns of national parliaments in their reasoned opinions, the Council will discontinue the consideration of that draft.

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The Lords’ declining reputation: The evidence

Meg-Russell

This week the House of Lords has been in the news for all the wrong reasons – with widespread criticism of David Cameron’s latest round of appointments, which have seen the already oversized chamber grow further still. Such negative stories have become common since Cameron became Prime Minister. Meg Russell reports on updated research about media representations of the Lords, and shows definitively the damaging effects that uncontrolled prime ministerial appointments have had on the chamber’s reputation since 2010.

This has been a disastrous news week for the Lords. David Cameron’s appointment of an additional 45 new peers has met with universal media condemnation. We have been told that the Lords is an ‘obese, obsolescent body’ (Telegraph) or an ‘upper house of sleaze and cronyism’ (Sunday Express), that ‘the bloated Upper House has become a laughing stock’ (Mail) or ‘a national embarrassment’ (Sunday Times), and that there is a need to ‘cut the bloated House of Lords down to size’ (FT). The Mirror greeted the appointments with the headline ‘Just when you thought the House of Lords couldn’t get worse’, while one columnist in the Guardian suggested that ‘the latest list of dissolution honours is so self-parodically venal that it resembles a dare’. An analysis of the week’s coverage by media-watcher Roy Greenslade concluded that ‘National newspapers of the left, right and centre were united in their disgust’. As an Observer commentator put it, ‘where is there left to go when Polly Toynbee of the Guardian and Quentin Letts in the Mail find themselves in perfect agreement?’

This is a deeply depressing situation. Such stories can only serve to drive down trust in the House of Lords, and thus more generally in parliament, and indeed probably in politics as a whole. The growing size of the chamber is already threatening its effectiveness. If the Lords is derided, and becomes ever less well respected, this too risks making it increasingly less capable of carrying out its important tasks of scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account.

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Is David Cameron actually seeking to destroy the Lords?

Meg-Russell

Yesterday’s new peerage appointments attracted almost universal criticism for further adding to the inexorable growth in size of the House of Lords under David Cameron. But could the gradual erosion of the Lords’ reputation actually benefit the government by weakening parliament? Might it even be a deliberate plan? And – given that the Prime Minister holds all the cards – what can be done about it? Meg Russell comments.

Click here to access a printer-friendly PDF of this post.

This post has an eye-catching title, but it isn’t a joke – my question is deadly serious. David Cameron’s list of 45 new appointments to the Lords, announced this week, has attracted predictable wails of outrage – from the media, from opposition parties , and indeed from myself. His Lords appointments in the last five years have been completely disproportionate. As I demonstrated in a report earlier this year, he has created new peers at a faster rate than any other Prime Minister since life peerages began in 1958. Although growth in the size of the chamber has always been a problem, since 2010 it has escalated to new proportions. As is clear from my well-rehearsed graph, updated for this week’s appointments, the upward trajectory increased sharply from 2010. In the 11 years of Labour government from 1999-2010 the chamber grew by 40-70 members (depending how you measure it); in the five short years since Cameron took office, it has grown by two to three times as much.

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Note: ‘Actual eligible membership’ includes those on leave of absence and otherwise temporarily excluded from the chamber, all of whom could potentially return. Source: House of Lords Information Office figures from January each year, updated with 2015 appointments.

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Purring – Mr Cameron, the Queen and the British Constitution

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Bob Morris reflects on what the Prime Minister’s recent transgression might tell us about the constitutional status of the UK sovereign.

Speaking recently to a former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg – the nearest to Yankee royalty – David Cameron spilled the beans on his own sovereign’s reaction to the Scottish referendum decision to stay in the United Kingdom: ‘She purred down the line’. Does this incident tell us anything about the current state of the British constitution or is it best written off as a trivial prime ministerial gaffe?

For the gaffe view is that the conversation was intended to be entirely private and was picked up by a journalist’s microphone by accident. One might get hoity-toity about whether a relationship of personal confidentiality was transgressed by some immature behaviour. On the other hand, as a Times columnist (Carol Midgley, 27 September) put it ‘indiscretions show politicians at their most human’. David Cameron apologised publicly and vowed to do so personally at his next regular audience with the Queen. Nothing otherwise will eventuate.

Precisely – the incident on the other view illustrates an important, largely unrecognised fact: the UK sovereign has no significant constitutional powers left. The most important – discretion to choose the Prime Minister and the power to grant (and, by implication, withhold) dissolutions of Parliament – have been lost. The first was lost when all political parties adopted internal rules to appoint their own leaders, and post-electoral manoeuvring was rather later made subject to procedures now publicly set out in the Cabinet Manual, which excluded/shielded the sovereign from participation short of recognising the outcome. The second, the power to grant or withhold dissolution, went following 2011 legislation for fixed term Parliaments.

The latter’s significance for the Palace falls to be judged against the view of a former Queen’s private secretary observing that the dissolution power was one that kept politicians respectful:

The power to grant or deny a dissolution in certain circumstances … adds enormously to the wariness with which British Prime Ministers approach the sovereign. (Sir W. Heseltine, ‘The Fabian Commission on the future of the monarchy’, Constitutional Law and Policy Review, February 2004, 84-92 at pp. 86-7).

No doubt David Cameron’s relationship with the current sovereign remains personally respectful, but does the incident show that constitutional respect has now gone? And, if so, what does this bode for the monarchy in the longer term? And what also for prime ministers no longer obliged to show deference?

In other words, far from his remarks being simply a careless gaffe, was David Cameron in fact making an unconscious statement about current constitutional realities? Discuss.

 Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant.At the Unit, Bob has been involved with a variety of interests, particularly FOI. Latterly he has tended to lead on ecclesiastical and royal issues, for example on the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, at the same time contributing to the recent study on Commons Public Bill Committees led by Meg Russell.

How often do prime ministers bow to the will of parliament? Actually, all the time

30th August 2013

David Cameron‘s defeat last night in the Commons on his motion on military intervention in Syria has been met with shock, and correctly seen as a very visible assertion of parliamentary power. But, although such confrontations are unusual, it would be wrong to assume that parliamentary checks on government ambitions are the exception. In fact, they happen all the time.

Two things are unusual about yesterday’s events. First, and most widely commented upon, they address the difficult and high-profile question of peace and war. Historically, the ability to deploy troops has been seen as part of the ‘royal prerogative’ – whereby the executive can act without explicit parliamentary consent. This came under particular pressure in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, when Robin Cook (Leader of the House of Commons) and Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary) persuaded Tony Blair that he should not proceed without the clear support of MPs. The result, on 18 March 2003, saw ‘the largest [vote] against the whip by government MPs since the beginning of modern British politics‘ – 139 Labour MPs defied the whip – but the Prime Minister still managed to win the vote with Conservative support. Subsequently there has been pressure to entrench a convention that parliamentary consent is required for the deployment of troops, with reports from one parliamentary committee and then another . Gordon Brown, and subsequently the coalition, have been sympathetic to such calls, but – as the second of these reports explores – the issues are complex. In 2011 David Cameron sought parliamentary approval for action in Libya, which was forthcoming – but only after the event. This sparked calls from a third committee to clarify the situation. But in short, a rejection by the Commons of such a proposal is unprecedented in recent times – at least because it has so rarely been asked the question. A useful briefing by the House of Commons Library documents how Commons debates on earlier conflicts – including Suez and the Falklands war – were generally taken without a substantive vote.

The other thing that is unusual is for a government to have to back down so publicly, on any kind of policy, in the face of parliamentary opposition. But this is not unheard of, including under the coalition. Most obviously, Nick Clegg’s Lords reform proposals were withdrawn when it became clear that he faced certain defeat in the Commons on the necessary programme motion. Earlier, the coalition’s Health and Social Care Bill had been withdrawn for a ‘pause’, due to resistance – particularly from the Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair also faced problems, notably being forced to implement a ban on foxhunting that he did not himself support, and being pressured into a free vote on a total ban on smoking in public places, leading to a reversal of government policy. All of these events took place in the very public arena of the House of Commons. What is more routine is for government to withdraw proposals following defeat in the House of Lords . As I document in my recent book, a key consideration for ministers in deciding whether to accept a Lords defeat is what the Commons will bear. When there is clear resistance from government backbenchers (as Brown faced over his proposals to detain terror suspects without charge for 42 days), plans are usually dropped to avoid possible Commons humiliation.

But this leads to the key point – which is that the real power of parliament is primarily exercised behind-the-scenes, through ministers considering what MPs are prepared to accept, and only putting proposals that they know will achieve support. When it comes to legislation, which is the topic of one of our current projects, a huge amount of effort in Whitehall goes into developing parliamentary ‘handling strategies’ to think through what will prove controversial in both the Commons and the Lords. This is very explicit in the Cabinet Office’s own guide to making legislation which also states that if ‘the Government expects to be defeated on a non-government amendment, it may wish to pre-empt a defeat by tabling a concessionary amendment’ – in other words to avoid a defeat by changing its policy before the vote. It is through these subtle and private mechanisms of communication that parliament’s primary power is felt. Indeed among our case study bills there was one – the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill – that the Prime Minister was said himself not to want, but which was introduced due to pressure from Labour MPs. It is the whips’ job, in particular, to keep in touch with parliamentary opinion through informal chats in corridors and tearooms, and ministers do the same in private meetings with MPs. If these mechanisms are working confrontations can be avoided, but parliamentary power is being exercised nonetheless.

Returning to the events of yesterday, what therefore appears to have gone wrong is communication inside the Conservative party. It is obviously more difficult for whips to keep on top of opinion during a parliamentary recess, and this can only have exacerbated the problem. What is more surprising is that when things started to look difficult the government didn’t strike a deal with the opposition so that both sides could support one resolution – the words of the government resolution and the Labour resolution were strikingly similar. But does this mark the start of a new period of confrontation between government and parliament? Probably not. A smart government is in constant dialogue with parliamentarians, and when necessary trims its ambitions to avoid public splits. If Cameron didn’t know that before, he certainly knows it now.