After Brexit, should referendums be banned?

Many people complained that a referendum was the wrong way to decide such a complex question as Britain’s membership of the EU. In the first of two articles, our Chief Political Commentator looks at the origin of the referendum in our constitution and what would have happened without it

John Rentoul
Sunday 04 September 2016 21:34 BST
Harold Wilson and his wife, Mary, voting in the 1975 referendum (she voted No): Getty
Harold Wilson and his wife, Mary, voting in the 1975 referendum (she voted No): Getty (Getty)

Referendums are a good and democratic thing, are they not? Our ComRes poll in The Independent at the weekend found 52 per cent preferred them for “major decisions about Britain’s future” – only 35 per cent said elected representatives should decide. But among the 35 per cent are Nicholas Soames, the Conservative MP, who said, “Parliament must recover its leadership and do the job for which Members are elected,” and Paul Evans, who wrote six years ago that referendums should be banned.

So here is a question for alternative historians: what would have happened if we had decided as a nation against referendums – for ever? What if the convention that held good until the summer of 1972, when Harold Wilson took up Tony Benn’s idea of a referendum, had continued to hold good?

Until then, it was agreed that the UK was a representative democracy and that decisions of the House of Commons (subject to tweaks by the House of Lords) were sovereign. The “plebiscite” was held to be the instrument of dictators.

In fact, the first UK referendum was the “border poll” in Northern Ireland in March 1973, boycotted by most nationalists, which voted to remain part of the UK, and which had little practical effect. But it was the 1975 referendum on Europe, which was promised in both Labour’s manifestos in the 1974 elections, which was the main innovation.

As ever, it was presented as returning to some ancient condition of a free people. “We shall restore to the British people the right to decide the final issue of British membership of the Common Market,” declared the February 1974 manifesto. Because of “the unique importance of the decision … the people should have the right to decide the issue through a General Election or a Consultative Referendum.”

The reason Wilson took refuge in the referendum was to hold his party together. If he had simply made a manifesto promise to renegotiate the terms of UK membership, the left would have been up in arms and anti-EEC MPs, led by Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Peter Shore, would have been stronger.

The greater disunity might have meant that Labour won fewer seats in the two 1974 elections, the second of which produced a majority of just three. If Wilson had still been able to form a government and survive, possibly with an earlier version of the Lib-Lab pact that operated in 1977-78, he would have faced trouble when he brought the renegotiated EEC terms back to the Commons.

He would, presumably, have conceded a free vote for those members of his Cabinet who were allowed to campaign for a “No” vote in the referendum. The result of the MPs’ vote would not have been very different from that in 1971 on Ted Heath’s original decision to join. Wilson led his MPs to vote against then, but 69 of them, led by Roy Jenkins, broke the whip to vote in favour. This time Wilson would have been on the other side, leading a (larger) minority of Labour MPs as he relied on the Conservatives, broadly united, to carry the vote.

The Labour mythology of betrayal and Bennism would have reached full pitch sooner than it did. When Wilson retired in 1976, the pressure of the left on MPs might have lifted Michael Foot to the premiership rather than James Callaghan (the leader was elected only by MPs in those days: Callaghan won by 176 votes to 137 in the final round).

So that would have been fun.

We might not have got as far, therefore, as the Scottish and Welsh referendums of March 1979, but both were lost anyway. The proposal for a Scottish Assembly was carried by 52 per cent, which fell short of the wrecking requirement that 40 per cent of the total electorate must vote “Yes”, while the Welsh Assembly was defeated by 80 per cent.

More importantly, the Labour government might not have survived long enough to suffer the trade union crisis of the winter of discontent, but how that counterfactual would have played out is unknowable.

Let us skip forward, therefore, to Tony Blair, preparing for the 1996 election (everything having been brought forward a year by the collapse of Foot’s government in 1978). He would not have promised a referendum on his revised plans for what was now called a Scottish Parliament.

The reason he did that, however, was to preempt obstruction of devolution legislation, especially in the House of Lords, which is what had happened in the 1970s.

The Scottish Parliament – and the Welsh Assembly, which was actually approved by a margin of only 0.6 per cent in the 1997 referendum – would probably have been created anyway, but it might have taken longer to get the law on the statute book and the struggle might have diverted the government’s energies more.

Next, there would have been a Mayor of London and a Greater London Assembly, without a London referendum. There would also have been more directly elected mayors elsewhere, because councils would not have needed local referendums to endorse them: 40 proposals for directly elected mayors have been rejected by referendums since 2001; only 17 were approved. The current spate of new directly-elected mayors in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and the West Midlands came about because David Cameron and George Osborne removed the referendum requirement.

Blair also held a referendum in Northern Ireland on the Belfast Agreement, although that was largely symbolic, and, later, one on an assembly for the North East region of England, which was defeated in 2004. If it hadn’t been for the safeguard of a referendum, I doubt if Blair would have yielded to John Prescott’s demand for regional assemblies.

Blair promised three UK-wide referendums but didn’t deliver any of them. He promised one on changing the voting system, but shelved it after Roy Jenkins recommended an unappetising added-member system in 1998. (Not many people know this, but one of the members of Jenkins’s commission was Sir John Chilcot.)

He promised another on adopting the euro, if his government decided to recommend it, which it didn’t.

And he promised a third before the 2005 election on the EU Constitution, a consolidation of EU treaties that was supposed to be the next step on the road to a federal Europe. Merely promising a referendum was enough to force Jacques Chirac, the French president, to offer one too – which he then lost, as did the Dutch government three days later. A watered-down Constitution, called the Lisbon Treaty, was finally signed by Gordon Brown in 2007.

If we had refused to have referendums, the outcomes would probably have been the same. The promise of a referendum on the voting system had originally been made by John Smith, Blair’s predecessor. Instead of a referendum, Smith might have promised a review and to put its recommendation in the following manifesto, which Blair would probably have decided against.

The euro referendum was originally promised by John Major: he would probably have promised that any recommendation to join the euro would have to be put to the people at a general election. And Blair would almost certainly have shied away from a manifesto commitment to join the euro at his second election.

As for the the EU Constitution, the French referendum might not have been held, but the Dutch would probably have gone ahead with theirs, and the Czechs and the Danes were going to have referendums too, which were both likely to have been lost. Even with the EU’s history of trying to persuade smaller countries to repeat referendums until they produced the right answer, the Constitution would almost certainly have failed anyway.

In part two of this post, I shall try to imagine the alternative history if David Cameron’s three referendums hadn’t happened. Would the voting system have changed, and what would have happened to Scotland and to the case for Brexit?

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