Video: What Place for the Referendum in the UK?

11 March 2013

Prof Vernon Bogdanor

Venue: Archaeology Lecture Theatre G6, Gordon House

The referendum is an instrument of popular sovereignty, an institutional expression of the doctrine that political sovereignty derives from the people. In Britain, it has been used on a small range of issues, primarily to secure legitimacy. Some matters, especially those which involve a transfer of sovereignty, are so fundamental that the public may not accept a decision made by parliament alone as legitimate. In the 1970s, it has been suggested, Edward Heath took the British establishment into Europe, but it was left to Harold Wilson to bring the British people into Europe. Today, the establishment continues to favour membership, the people do not. That is the basic case for an `in-out’ referendum.

One difficulty with the referendum is that the question is decided by the politicians, not by the voters. The questionthat the voters wish to answer may not be on the ballot paper. In 2011, survey evidence indicated that the favoured option for most electoral reformers was proportional representation, not the alternative vote. Yet that option was not on the ballot paper. In Scotland, survey evidence indicates that further devolution is the favoured option rather than the status quo or independence. Yet that option is not to be on the ballot paper. On Europe. David Cameron proposes a referendum on renegotiated terms of membership, but survey evidence indicates that people favour an in/out referendum. Some means, therefore, should be found for taking the referendum out of the hands of the politicians.

Prof Vernon Bogdanor CBE will is Professor of Government at the Institute of Contemporary History, King’s College, London. He was formerly for many years Professor of Government at Oxford University. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences.

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When does the British Constitution require a Referendum? – V. Bogdanor’s opinion on the place for the referendum in the UK

26th February 2013

Referendums are increasingly becoming part of British civic life. Whilst this constitutional instrument remained unused in Britain until forty years ago, eleven referendums have taken place in the United Kingdom since 1973 –  with only two  held nationwide. In the past fifteen years a substantial number of constitutional issues have been subjected to popular approval.

According to Professor Vernon Bogdanor, the recent experience of referendums in the UK suggests the emergence of a new constitutional convention.   Before significant powers could be devolved away from Westminster, a referendum would be required. In Professor Bogdanor’s opinion, the precedents set by the Scottish devolution referendums (1979 and 1997), the Welsh devolution referendums (1979, 1997 and 2011), the Greater London Authority referendum (1998), the Northern Ireland Belfast Agreement referendum (1998) and the North East England devolution referendum (2004) have developed a convention that may in turn constrain governments. Under this doctrine, the Westminster government would have an obligation to hold a referendum in the case of a delegation of power to devolved institutions and would be bound by its result.

Professor Bogdanor also argues that a referendum would be required when other major constitutional reforms are considered by Parliament. The most obvious examples would be the referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system in 2011 and the future referendum on EU membership proposed by the Prime Minister, David Cameron. With these referendums – so the argument goes – political actors have created a precedent. They have generated a public expectation that certain pivotal issues of constitutional relevance remain the preserve of popular sovereignty. For this reason, it may even be possible to pose the question of whether the People could be regarded as the third chamber of Parliament. Therefore, even though an elastic and uncodified constitution (such as that of the UK) would in principle imply an elastic role for referendums, the referendum has developed into a doctrine that might even constrain Parliament.

The difficulty with this doctrine is that other recent major constitutional changes – such as the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (which created the new Supreme Court) – have not been sanctioned by a referendum; nor was a referendum proposed before introducing elections to the House of Lords.

This suggests the doctrine is not yet particularly firm, even in relation to devolution. For example, a referendum was required before the Welsh Assembly could be granted primary legislative powers, but not for the grant of greater fiscal powers to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act 2012. If next year’s Scottish independence referendum fails, and there are then proposals for Devo-Max, will a further referendum be required? Or will it depend on the actual result of the independence referendum? This uncertainty does not suggest the presence of a precise doctrine and appears to reinforce the argument that the use of referendums in the UK – in the absence of a codified constitution – is largely based on political considerations.

The Coalition and the Constitution

Prof Vernon Bogdanor (Research Professor at the Institute for Contemporary History, King’s College London)

Date: Thursday 12 May, 6.00pm Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

The first anniversary of the Coalition has come and gone. It was the cue for a mass of commentary – which is interesting in itself. It is clear that the British public and media are still coming to terms with coalition. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, long a student of coalition governments, has been looking at the implications for the British constitution. Professor Bogdanor spoke on this yesterday at the Constitution Unit to promote his new book The Coalition and the Constitution (Hart Publishing, Oxford). He drew interesting comparisons between historical coalitions and our current situation. Bogdanor argued that many coalition governments had been formed out of fear. For instance, the current economic stresses at home and abroad caused the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition with the Conservatives and abandon their previous policies and adopt the Conservative policy of immediate and sustained deep spending cuts. Bogdanor argued that this was not going to be a comfortable ride for the Lib Dems. Coalitions have never been happy experiences for the Liberals, often leading to splits within the party –the classic example being the Liberal Unionists who later merged with the Conservatives. His analysis showed that the Conservatives, on the other hand, had largely benefited from these alliances. The reduction of Commons seats from the current figure of 650 to 600 had been overshadowed by the AV referendum, despite being arguably the more revolutionary reform of the two. This meant that many constituency associations will have to pick new electoral candidates which could result in a slew of anti-coalition candidates being chosen. A key point of Bogdanor’s talk was that coalitions collapse from the bottom-up, not from the top down. He also spoke of the effect of the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill, which could provide the Lib Dems with a way out of the Coalition without having to fear immediate annihilation by Cameron calling a general election. During the following question and answers session, some in the audience queried Professor Bogdanor’s historical account. Audience members of Liberal Democrat and Conservatives persuasion both defended the Coalition, trying to distinguish between the circumstances leading to the current coalition and those leading to previous coalition administrations. A question was asked about the application of the Salisbury convention in the House of Lords. A peer in the audience argued that the House of Lords was fully entitled to vote down government legislation and that the Salisbury convention didn’t apply under the present circumstances. The effects of the recent AV referendum were also discussed, with Professor Bogdanor believing that it will galvanise those ‘small c’ conservative elements in both Houses, but that the finality of referendums can be overstated – Britain’s status in Europe is still up for debate 31 years after the Common Market referendum.

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