Ask the people? Not in Britain: After the Russian referendum, Ivor Crewe wonders why our politicians so dislike the option

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REFERENDUMS are back in fashion. Hardly a month seems to pass without a democracy somewhere resorting to the people's verdict. Last year the Danes, the French and the Irish voted on Maastricht. Ireland also voted on abortions, with no very clear result, and New Zealand voted emphatically to change from first-past-the-post to proportional representation. Last week the Italians voted equally emphatically to do the reverse. The Russians are now choosing between Yeltsin and parliament, market reform and old-style Communism. There are referendums to come in Denmark (Maastricht again), Ireland (on divorce) and, perhaps, Australia (on the monarchy).

The fashion stops in Britain. There is now no prospect of a referendum on Maastricht. The anti-Maastricht rebels at Westminster are too weak, they get little support on the issue from the Opposition benches and they are anyway not uniformly enthusiastic. Eighty per cent of people tell the pollsters they want a referendum on Europe but that will translate into precious few votes for the pro-referendum candidates at the Newbury by-election. The Anti-Federalists' referendum rally in London was a flop.

A referendum on electoral reform in the event of Labour winning the next election seems equally unlikely. To paper over its internal divisions the party will probably recommend a Royal Commission instead. If the Liberal Democrats are the coalition brokers in a hung parliament they will demand a bill for proportional representation without a referendum before or after.

That Britain's party leaders avoid referendums is only to be expected. Referendums undermine their power, divide their parties and inject uncertainty into the political process. But why the rest of the political classes are so embarrassed by the R-word is less obvious.

The old left still associates referendums with the fascist plebiscites of the Thirties and fears the populism of the tabloids. The centre-left worries that referendums will produce the 'wrong' (ie illiberal) verdicts on capital punishment or immigration. The establishment right thinks that matters of government are too complicated for ordinary people to judge. Only the populist right calls for referendums, and then only when its parliamentary leaders are out of power. Baroness Thatcher's conversion rings hollow.

Particularly revealing is the lukewarm stance of Britain's burgeoning constitutional reform movement, now the leading cause for British radicals. Its articles of faith are proportional representation, reform of the Lords, devolution and freedom of information, all in the name of devolving power from the executive to the people. But referendums, even when instituted by Parliament, let alone referendums by popular initiative, are curiously absent from the litany. Reformists feel much more comfortable with 'constitutional conventions' of like-minded centre-left activists. British radicalism is tame stuff: 'Trust the people - a little bit'.

Most of the supposedly principled arguments against referendums do not stand up to serious scrutiny. The Government's ritual defence is 'referendums undermine parliamentary sovereignty'. This might be true of referendums imposed by popular initiative, as in Switzerland and California, or required by a written constitution, as in Ireland. But in Britain referendums can only be advisory and Parliament determines their timing, the question wording and the definition of a majority. To deny a referendum on legislation that transfers parliamentary sovereignty on the grounds of protecting parliamentary sovereignty is a very English piece of constitutional hypocrisy.

'Only elected politicians are in a position to judge complex issues.' MPs might be better informed than voters but they are less able to exercise independent judgement - what else are the whips for? General elections require voters to solve a much more complex calculus given the large number of issues at stake. In a three-week campaign the serious media can do a lot of educating. Surveys at the time of the EC and devolution referendums revealed sharp increases in voters' knowledge. Turnout was only a little below general election levels, despite the absence of party workers to get people to the polls.

'Referendums register public opinion but cannot resolve major problems.' On the contrary, by virtue of the overpowering legitimacy conferred by popular majorities, referendums usually break the political stalemates created by ossified party systems. Proportional representation will be adopted in New Zealand and abolished in Italy - after years of debate - and these changes are unlikely to be reversed for a generation. If the Danes vote 'no' again, Denmark will semi-detach itself from the EC.

The case for a referendum on Maastricht is overwhelming. The Maastricht treaty marks an indisputable transfer of powers from Westminster. No less an authority than A V Dicey, so often cited by defenders of parliamentary sovereignty, advocated 'the people's veto' on Irish Home Rule at the turn of the century. The matter of parliamentary jurisdiction was the constitutional reason given by respective governments for the 'border poll' referendum in Northern Ireland in 1973; for the EEC referendum in 1975 and for the devolution referendums in 1979. There was no effective opportunity for voters opposed to Maastricht to vote accordingly at the 1992 general election because all the main parties were in favour.

Of course, short-term pragmatism explains this government's resistance to a Maastricht referendum and the Labour Party's likely preference for a Royal Commission on proportional representation. A referendum would mercilessly expose party divisions and, even worse, might be lost. Polls show opinion on Maastricht running at about three to two against and the parties fear that voters might use a referendum like a by-election to express their general dissatisfaction with the Government.

But this apparently hard- headed pragmatism ignores the evidence of past referendum results. There are two general rules. First, voters prefer the status quo to change. Second, voters listen to the political establishment in preference to the political fringe. They may reject the Government's advice in order to continue with the status quo - as the Irish have done in the past on the electoral system and divorce. Or they might accept radical change because the establishment consensus was in favour - as the Italians did last week. But it is extremely rare for voters to opt for radical change against the advice of the mainstream parties.

Thus practical politics as well as constitutional principle support a referendum. If John Major sought the electorate's retrospective approval once Maastricht was on the statute book, he would be asking voters to maintain the new status quo, and would be backed, albeit grudgingly, by the main parties and most of the media. He would win for the same reasons people voted 'yes' in 1975 - the alternative would be a vote for isolation and the unknown - and, like Wilson, he would effectively settle the issue within and beyond his party for a decade.

A referendum on PR offers John Smith similar practical advantages if, as generally thought, he is personally opposed. He need merely ask the electorate to approve of an unspecified new system, declare himself neutral, and suspend party discipline on the issue: if other country's referendums are a guide, voters would reject such a pig in a poke and the issue would be killed. Referendums do not necessarily threaten the power of party leaders. They usually aid and legitimatise it.

Ivor Crewe is professor of government at the University of Essex.

(Photograph omitted)