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 future of referendums: what role should they play and how should they be conducted?

me-2015-large-e1485255919145.jpgTwo decades have passed since there was last a serious consideration of how the UK uses referendums. For this reason, the Constitution Unit established the Independent Commission on Referendums to examine whether and how the way in which referendums are regulated in the UK should be changed. Ahead of a public event in Edinburgh, the Commission’s research director, Dr. Alan Renwick, explains its terms of reference. 

The referendum is now entrenched as a part of the UK’s political system. The principle that a referendum is needed before some fundamental constitutional changes – notably in relation to sovereignty – are made has become well established. It seems likely that politicians will continue from time to time to find it useful to manage conflicts by proposing to put certain decisions to the people.

Yet, crucially important though referendums are, there has been little concerted thinking of late about how they should be conducted. Two inquiries carried out in the 1990s – by the UCL Constitution Unit’s Nairne Commission and by the Committee on Standards in Public Life – led to the creation of some basic rules, laid down in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. But these rules were always incomplete: for example, they say nothing about who is entitled to vote in a referendum. They are also now two decades old. Much has changed in the intervening years – not least through the rise of the internet and social media. Four major referendums have also been held in that period – on Welsh devolution (2011), the Westminster voting system (2011), Scottish independence (2014), and EU membership (2016) – from which lessons can be learned. Many observers have been dismayed by the conduct of those referendums, whether they agreed with the results or not. A careful review of whether we could do better is therefore overdue.

That is the task of the Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit last autumn to examine the role and conduct of referendums in the UK and consider what changes might be desirable. Comprising twelve eminent individuals with diverse perspectives on referendums, including current and former parliamentarians, journalists, regulators, and academics, the Commission is due to report this summer. It is keen to hear as many views as possible, it is holding seminars in all of the UK’s capital cities. The Edinburgh seminar is the next in this series, co-hosted with the Royal Society of Edinburgh next Monday. Continue reading

A ‘reserved powers’ model of devolution for Wales: what should be ‘reserved’?

Proposals for a reserved powers model in Wales raise major questions about the division of powers between the UK and devolved Welsh tiers of government. Alan Trench argues that Welsh reservations should not simply be an adaptation of the Scottish model. What is needed is a carefully-thought through approach by the UK Government followed by a public debate, engaging the Welsh Government, the political parties and Welsh civil society.

Since at least 2004, when the Richard Commission proposed one, there has been significant support in Wales for adoption of a ‘reserved powers’ model – as Scotland and (in a different way) Northern Ireland have.  The call was strongly endorsed by the Silk Commission in its Part 2 report and became UK Government policy with support from all four main parties following the St David’s Day process. There seems to be an assumption now that a reserved powers model is essentially a technical matter and that the Scottish model can and will be taken off the shelf and applied, with appropriate modifications, to Wales.  That might not be a bad way forward – there’s a good deal to be said for the Scottish legislation, though it’s not a magical way to solve all problems.  But real devils also lurk in the detail of what ‘appropriate modifications’ might be.

What appears to be underway is a process by which Whitehall departments are consulted about what functions they want to see retained, and what they are happy to let go.  The Welsh Government is a marginal player in this process, if it is a player at all, and the Wales Office does not appear to have a strategy to go with its consultation list.  The first fruit of that trawl appeared in the Powers for a Purpose Command paper published in February at the end of the St David’s Day process, as Annex B.

Continue reading

The dragon roars? Welsh Devolution and the UK Supreme Court

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It is rare that news about Welsh devolution trumps Scotland. As we move ever closer towards a Scottish referendum on independence, we would be forgiven in thinking that relations with the Welsh Government are a far more sedate affair.

Last year, this illusion, if not blown wide open, received a sizeable dent. On 31st July, UK Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC, referred what appeared to be a fairly innocuous bill to the UK Supreme Court (UKSC) amid concerns that Welsh Assembly had exceeded its constitutional remit by changing the powers of UK Ministers. The offending legislation, the Local Government Byelaws (Wales) Bill 2011, if left unamended, would have given the Welsh local authorities the power to make and enforce local byelaws – absolving them from approval and consent mechanisms shared with the Westminster Government in the Local Government Act 1972 and Government of Wales Act 2006. This would have been the first bill passed under new powers of primary legislation granted in 2011. It was also the first bill from either the Cardiff or Holyrood legislatures to be referred to the UKSC, hence its double constitutional importance.

The UK Attorney General’s complaint was not upheld by the UKSC. In a unanimous decision last November, the Court ruled the offending bill did not exceed the Assembly’s powers. This meant that the bill’s principal aims, to reform byelaw procedures to exclude Ministerial confirmation and to restate Wales’ general power to make byelaws (among others), stood. In particular, Lord Neuberger found clause 6, which effectively removed the separate need of Secretaries of State to confirm new byelaws, to be ‘incidental’ and secondary to the primary purpose of removing Welsh Minister’s confirmation. In addition, Lord Neuberger argued that the power conferred on the Welsh Executive in clause 9, which allows Welsh Ministers to regulate the number of byelaws and the bodies that make them, removed the Secretary of State’s function in the matter but made no further, disproportionate incursion.

The upshot of this case is not just historic, as noted above, but also highlights how the stakes of Welsh devolution have increased. In a 2011 referendum, 63.49% of Welsh citizens agreed to extend the ability of its national assembly to make laws in twenty new areas. Moreover, on 19th November 2012, Paul Silk, a House of Commons Clerk, recommended that the Welsh Government should have more tax-raising powers and be able to borrow to pay for new infrastructure. These signal substantial gains for a nation that is often viewed as the unequal, evolutionary partner of the 1999 devolution settlement.

Everything is not positive. As Devolution expert and Constitution Unit fellow, Alan Trench points out Cardiff was bruising for a fight in the 2012 UKSC case. Reminders of the changes that needed to be made to the bill by the Welsh Office were repeatedly ignored by the Welsh Executive. Moreover, it could also be argued that the Welsh Government would have won either way; lose and it bolsters complaints over the inadequacy of new powers, win and it establishes a favourable precedence in constitutional adjudication between Westminster and Cardiff.

To conclude, then, it would be naïve to characterise current Anglo-Welsh relations as somehow more harmonious when compared to Scotland. As shown in the UKSC case, tensions still simmer. Political anoraks are therefore well-warned. When the Silk Commission recommends new constitutional powers for Wales in spring 2014, the Welsh dragon may just roar again.

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