Glossary: When all else fails, let the plebs have a say

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The Independent Online
LISTENING to Baroness Thatcher's speech in the Lords the other day and hearing her vocal cords thrum with patriotic indignation, you could have been forgiven for assuming that a referendum was some British birthright - rough cast in the mould by ancient Britons, honed by the civic precision of the Roman invaders, annealed1 in the blood of English martyrs dead.

In truth it is a Swiss import, rather less venerable than hand-made watches and fine chocolate. Not strictly European, perhaps (we can't reproach Lady Thatcher with that paradox), but a continental habit of mind at the very least, and one frequently disdained as such by politicians who fear them. 'I would not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions,' Clement Attlee wrote in 1945. 'Hitler's practices in the field of referenda and plebiscites can hardly have endeared these expedients to the British heart.'

Attlee got the plural wrong: referendum is a gerund of the Latin referre, to refer, and doesn't have a plural form - strictly speaking, referenda would imply things to be referred rather than the single issue of most referendums.

The first citation for referendum in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1847, and almost all its early uses are in specific references to Swiss politics. It was only with the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain in the Common Market that the word really entered the general vocabulary. Now it is once again enjoying a revival - a tattered standard around which Euro-sceptics hope to rally the troops2 .

As a rough index of its popularity, a computer search shows that in the year from September 1989 the word appeared in the Independent 203 times (before events in Eastern Europe gave the process a new lease of life), against 1,227 mentions in the year to date.

Referendum has another meaning: it can describe a note from a diplomat to his government, requesting instruction. That implication of dutiful obedience is what those calling for a referendum would like you to think they had in mind. 'Mere politicians cannot decide on a matter of such gravity,' the line goes. 'We are your servants and must be instructed.'

Naturally politicians won't risk asking for orders unless there is a good chance that they will be told to do what they had in mind all along.

Referendums look like democracy, which is a large part of their appeal to politicians in general and demagogues in particular. One writer suggests that a defining characteristic of a referendum is that it involves decisions made by 'a body which is not an assembly and cannot discuss', hinting at the temptation they present to those exhausted by the rotary grind of parliamentary debate.

This is partly why Attlee links them with plebiscites, which have, in any case, a far more dubious history. In its original sense plebiscite draws a clear distinction between all electors and those at the bottom of the social heap. Literally an ordinance (scitum) of the plebs, it presupposes an identifiable sub-section of the general population. If you conducted a vote on whether we should return to public executions and printed the ballot forms only in the Sun, you might legitimately call that a plebiscite. Perhaps this is really what Lord Tebbit dreams of at night.

But neither referendum nor plebiscite are the stuff of impassioned rhetoric. It is difficult to imagine inflamed mobs parading down a high street chanting, 'We want a referendum and we want it now.'

Perhaps the anti-Maastricht campaigners should look for some older form, a word redolent of English traditions as opposed to European ones, something that hints at domestic political continuity.

I would suggest hustings, a word that has come to mean the general paraphernalia3 of elections (it used to refer to the platform from which candidates were nominated and made their speeches), but which has its origins in the Old English husting, an assembly called by a king or leader (in Old Norse a thing was a general assembly of the people). The OED's first example dates back to 1030, which is a bit closer to the sovereign political tradition the referendites insist they are defending.

1 From the Old English aelen, to set on fire, to burn, to bake, plus the prefix on.

2 Probably from the late Latin troppus, a flock.

3 In Roman law, the parapherna were goods owned by a wife in her own right. From the Greek para, besides, and pherna, the dowry.