UK Politics

The politics of referendums

Image caption Margaret Thatcher's choice of sweater made her position clear in 1975

Philip Larkin observed that sexual intercourse began in 1963.

Many people believe Britain was similarly behind the times in forming a relationship with the referendum, not taking the plunge until 1975. Both are wrong.

Larkin, of course, was being ironic; and until I started working on The Referendum Question, I was one of the ignorant, plumping for the vote on whether to stay in what was then the EEC as Britain's first referendum.

In fact, nearly a decade before people were asked to vote "oui" or "non", some were deciding "wet" or "dry".

The first referendum in the UK was in Wales. The question posed was whether pubs should be able to sell alcohol on a Sunday?

These votes were conducted district by district. Not good for business in Llandudno, apparently, where visitors would de-camp en masse to neighbouring Colwyn Bay, which opted for Sunday opening ahead of the resort next door.

The 1975 vote on Europe was the first across the UK, though, and the one in May on whether to adopt the alternative vote instead of first-past-the-post to elect MPs will be only the second.

Platform tension

So politicians can find them a bit uncomfortable.

Whilst Shirley Williams enjoyed working with Ted Heath and Jeremy Thorpe in the 'Yes' campaign in 1975 - and Margaret Thatcher, the new Conservative leader, was cutting a dash in a jumper covered in European flags - Tony Benn refused to share a platform with Enoch Powell, even though both were campaigning for a 'No' vote.

Singer Bono (middle) with David Trimble (left) and John Hume (right) at a concert backing a yes vote in the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday agreement
Image caption Rock star Bono took centre stage at a key moment during the 1998 Good Friday referendum

The tension in the AV referendum between Labour leader Ed Miliband and his Liberal Democrat opposite number Nick Clegg illustrates how little experience politicians have of this way of working.

It is less surprising that in 1979, Labour and the SNP found it hard to co-operate in the 'Yes' camp on the referendum on Scottish devolution; both knew a general election was probably only weeks away.

By tradition, Labour politicians have been sceptical about the referendum.

They associate it with fascist politics, a way of stirring the passions of the populace. So why have Labour governments made so much use of them?

Resolving disputes

Often as a way of resolving internal party disputes. Harold Wilson opted for one in 1975 because even his cabinet was divided on whether to remain in Europe.

Let the people decide is a good slogan, but it usually translates as let the people get us out of the mess we've got ourselves into.

Sean Connery and Gordon Brown
Image caption Sean Connery took to the campaign trail during the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution

In 1979, it was the opponents of devolution who forced the government to hold a referendum rather than relying on a parliamentary vote.

As recently as March of this year, a referendum was held in Wales on the powers of its Assembly. This was the result of a compromise several years ago to get sceptical Labour MPs at Westminster to support changes in the political system in Wales.

It's not just the Left which has worried about the use of the referendum though.

Conservatives inspired by the philosophy of Edmund Burke regard Parliament as sovereign. So each UK referendum has tended to be advisory, requiring MPs to endorse or reject the result.

But should they rubber stamp a referendum when most of the voters don't bother to take part?

Extra hurdles

In 1979, MPs didn't think so. They added an extra hurdle to the referendum on devolution: unless 40% of the eligible electorate went to the polls, the result would not be valid.

Sounds fair. But, as ever, there was politics behind it. Anti-devolutionists knew that the effect was to enfranchise those who couldn't be bothered to vote; in effect, their absence added to the 'no' votes.

Their defence was that creating a Scottish Parliament was too important a change to make without substantial public support.

Edward Heath, Roy Jenkins and Lord Harris at a press conference during the 1975 referendum campaign
Image caption Politicians from different parties have had to think carefully who they share a platform with

The result in 1979 was that although more people voted 'yes' than 'no' in that referendum, the low turnout invalidated the result.

The argument surfaced again this year in the House of Lords when a group of peers sceptical about changing the voting system argued - unsuccessfully - for a similar hurdle in next month's vote.

There is an irony here. Those who favour the present voting system for elections to the Westminster Parliament say its virtue is its simplicity; that a winner is a winner, even if they do so by only one vote and have failed to win a majority of votes in their constituency.

Yet, when it comes to the referendum, they don't think winning by one vote should be enough.

Such paradoxes have been a feature of Britain's referendum politics over the last forty years. It has been a story of stunts and secret deals, punctuated by wedding proposals and punch-ups, fought with shopping baskets and inflatable animals.

The Referendum Question will be broadcast on BBC Radio Four on Saturday 2 April at 2000 BST, repeated on Monday 4 April at 1500 BST.

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