Politics and Governance in the UK

Second edition

by Michael Moran

Update 36 – July 2012

The referendum habit continues to spread

Chapter 13 of Politics and Governance in the UK developed a major theme: that there has been a reshaping of participation opportunities in the UK, and that the referendum is central to this. Page 248 of the second edition tabulates the referendums held since the first nationwide referendum, over the UK’s membership of the (then) European Economic Community in 1975. But even since the 2nd edition went to press, the referendum habit has continued to spread. The Coalition committed itself in its programme in May 2010 to a referendum on the introduction of the Alternative Vote: I summarised the defeat of that proposal in the referendum which was held on 5 May 2011 in my June update for last year. Now we have two further examples of the spread of the referendum habit. The first concerns institutional change in local government, especially the establishment of the office of elected mayor. There have now been in all forty seven referendums in local authorities on this issue. In May 2012 there occurred the most extensive of all: eleven major cities, including the largest, in England, balloted on the question. Only one (Bristol) voted in favour; Doncaster also voted to retain its existing system of an elected mayoralty. The widespread rejection of the office is obviously important, but for our purposes here it is not the result that is relevant, but the fact that the referendums took place: it is a further institutionalization of this means of decision making. When the first nationwide referendum was held over membership of the Common Market in 1975 many argued that it was a fundamental breach of the constitution; now referendums are a fundamental part of the constitution.

The second example of the spread of the referendum habit is even more momentous. Referendums are now established as a key means of settling major constitutional issues. A referendum on Scottish independence will probably take place in the autumn of 2014; the opposing campaigns have already had their first launch. And a referendum on the future of the UK’s relationship with Europe – the issue that the pioneering referendum of 1975 was supposed to settle in perpetuity – is also once again a possibility. The crisis in the Eurozone, and the institutional changes which that crisis is bringing, is the trigger: the Labour Opposition is contemplating supporting such a referendum; and the Prime Minister, faced with a large Eurosceptic block in his party, announced in an interview in the Sunday Telegraph on 1 July that he likewise was contemplating one. The particular issue is related to one examined in my last update: the way the Eurozone crisis has resulted in the ‘forward march of Europe halted.’ But, again, in this context the important point is the way politicians now turn to referendums to solve problems, both large and small.