Referendum or Referenda?

No this isn’t a linguistic point about the plural form in English. According to Wikipedia at any rate both forms (referendums and referenda) are acceptable (but I did feel the need to check). The issue here is rather whether the referendum is a singularly British obsesssion, something which in the French context is lacking in real significance. This, at least, would seem to be the conclusion you could reach if you went by Alain Jupp?’s latest pronouncements on the matter:

European countries should think carefully before copying Mr Blair’s “rather personal, and perhaps I should add, ultimately British, initiative”.

“When it comes to choosing [between ratification by vote in parliament and a referendum], we would like to take a concerted approach with our partners and in particular with Germany,” Mr Jupp? said at a press conference.

And this despite, of course, the fact that Jacques Chirac delared in Thessaloniki last year that he was “logically in favour of a referendum” since “It would be the only legitimate way”.

In my schooldays we were taught that referenda were a very un-British thing. That their existence in the constitution of the Fifth Republic was one of the weaknesses of the French way of doing politics. That they could lead to demagogic manipulation depending on how the question was framed. My oh my, how things have changed!

The British sovereignists are the most fervent advocates of this most ‘un-British’ of institutions, while the home of referenda finds the present suggestion an ‘ultimately British’ initiative.

I suppose the definitive, long-standing objection to the referenda system has to be the leeway it provides for all that jiggery-pockery we are currently seeing.

As the FT observes:

Mr Chirac’s decision will hinge on his estimation of whether the Socialist opposition would seek to trip the government up in a referendum either by calling for a No vote or by encouraging voters to see it as a protest vote against an unpopular administration.”

Principles, above all principles.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, The European Union by Edward Hugh. Bookmark the permalink.

About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

11 thoughts on “Referendum or Referenda?

  1. “My oh my, how things have changed!”

    Hmm, principles may change but political expediency remains the same. I have to say that I’m rather uneasy about the idea of a referendum. In theory such a vote should be the ultimate mandate for any policy and provide a lasting political settlement but in practice the type of issue that has to be put to such a vote out of expediency is extremely unlikely to confer any such mandate. In the event that a ‘Yes’ vote is passed the results will probably be the same as the referendum organised on British membership of the EU; claims will be made that the issue was misrepresented and the electorate deceived (unlike at any general election). Much of the electorate will accordingly not regard its own vote as binding. As an example, consider this charmless website:

    In the event that a ‘No’ vote is the outcome, Britain would find itself in an extremely invidious position and it is easy to imagine a similar outcome to what happened in Ireland after the rejection of the Nice treaty; now vote again and get it right this time.

    I certainly support the use of a referendum for this kind of constitutional change but they are very far from being the kind of magic bullet they are pretended to be.

  2. “Much of the electorate will accordingly not regard its own vote as binding.”

    That is in keeping with Britain’s unusual, if not unique, constitutional arrangements with the guiding principle that no Parliament can bind its successors. Put like that, it seems a bit ramshackle but, somehow, we have managed to cope for quite a few centuries and without Britain becoming an oppressive despotism, perhaps because Magna Carta of 1215 is the ultimate ancestor of most subsequent Bills of Rights in other places.

    I must confess that I am unable to follow all the concerns about holding a referendum in Britain before we sign up to an EU Constitution.

    By many reports, seven other EU member states are either committed to, or likely to have, a referendum so it is not instantly evident why Britain shouldn’t. Besides, the prospect of a referendum in Britain is likely to inhibit the federalising and harmonising tendencies which some European leaders still seem to nurture. I suspect that is the rub.

  3. Richard’s concerns are legitimate, but I don’t think we solve anything by not having a referendum either.

    Ultimately, I favour a referendum because I think it will function as a pressure valve. We need to have a big national punch up (figurative speaking) on Europe because it has dominated the British media and politics for over a decade now and it has got ridiculous.

    As a pro-European, I also think there are some truly undemocratic attitudes amongst many pro-Europeans as well and they need a wakeup call. We’ve got to create a new vision of Europe that the British public broadly accept – we’ve avoided having that debate for too long and it has festered.

  4. “We’ve got to create a new vision of Europe that the British public broadly accept”

    Oh how I would love to see that James, oh how I would love to see it.

    But still, I guess my opinions don’t really count, I stopped feeling myself to be a Brit where it really matters yonks ago. Euro-Indian would probably be a better description these days, and a virtual one at that.

  5. “because [Europe] has dominated the British media and politics for over a decade now and it has got ridiculous”

    A mere decade? Nonsense. I started a career (as an academic) just about the time Harold Macmillan’s government made a belated application in August 1961 for Britain to sign up to the Treaty of Rome (1957). De Gaulle eventually vetoed that in 1963 but not before “customs unions” and the European Economic Community (as then) became perennial lecture, tutorial and examination topics, especially since the incoming Labour government of Harold Wilson in October 1964 renewed the application despite the veto – albeit with a repeat of the same outcome as before. After De Gaulle’s retirement to a celestial sphere in November 1970, we had the successful negotiations of Ted Heath’s government leading to Britain’s accession to the EEC in January 1973. That was followed, in due course, by the splits in the Wilson government, returned at the February 1974 election, and the referendum of June 1975 to resolve the issue of Britain’s continued membership, at which 64.5 per cent voted “Yes”.

    Of course, matters could not rest there. Come the 1983 election and Labour put in its manifesto a commitment to negotiate withdrawal from what it termed the European Common Market but lost the election. It is of more than incidental interest that Tony Blair was first elected to Parliament on that manifesto.

    Undaunted or invigorated, the returned Thatcher government was an enthusiastic proponent of the Single European Act of January 1986. The 1990s were taken up with the debates over the Maastrict Treaty of 1992 and the launch of the Euro in January 1999 despite the professional reservations among many German economists in February 1998 about whether prevailing economic circumstances in Germany were sufficiently propitious for European monetary union to succeed:

    By now the really dedicated will recall that the Attlee government of 1945-51 refused to participate in the Schuman Plan for the European Coal and Steel Community, which lead to the Treaty of Paris in April 1951, but I was quite young then. The fact is that all this has been going on for more than fifty years and longer if we reckon WW2 was an attempt at European integration of a kind. Somehow, I managed to live through that as well dodging bombs in London. From my personal perspective, the debates in Britain over relations with Europe have been going on for a lifetime and seem most likely set to continue. In today’s Financial Times, Samuel Brittan is saying we should say, “No” in a referendum as “a signal that over-centralisation has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished.” – at: The special significiance, is that Sam Brittan, apart from being a widely esteemed doyen of economic commentators in Britain, is the brother of Leon Brittan, Vice-President of the European Commission 1989-93.

  6. Bob, you’re quite right. But as someone whose formative years were the late 80s and early 90s, I noticed a definite shift in anti-EU sentiment after Thatcher resigned, which became crystalised over the Maastricht row. I suppose I’m just suggesting it took a turn for the worse at that point, becoming less about power politics and more an all-pervasing mania.

  7. The reason that referenda have become more acceptable is that it has become clear that there is no meaningful constraint whatsoever on any treaty (or, for that matter, legislative initiative) which the British executive wishes to pursue. If we had a political system where the legislature would at times severely amend or reject unpopular executive proposals, then the situation would be very different. Unless you are prepared to defend the view that major constitutional change should be made by the Prime Minister’s Office without any constraint, then, in the current British political system, a referendum is the only constraint available.

  8. James: “I noticed a definite shift in anti-EU sentiment after Thatcher resigned, which became crystalised over the Maastricht row.”

    I think your impression is correct and I’ve long puzzled about the change.

    Mrs T, in her fashion, was pro Britain’s membership of the European Community, as it had formally become, which is why she pushed for the Single European Act of 1986 to whittle away at remaining trade barriers, especially barriers to trade in services since Britain is the second largest global exporter of services after the US.

    She correctly regarded Britain’s net contribution to the EC budget as too large and she came to be increasingly sceptical about the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the prospect of European monetary union, very probably because of the briefing she was getting from Alan Walters, who became her personal economic adviser. She was also notoriously irritated by the Eurospeak language of EC Directives and Commission briefing but then many who have been obliged for work reasons to plough through such documents will have a lot of natural sympathy with those sentiments. Comparing briefs from the EU Commission with those from the civil service in Britain is an education.

    The unfolding of events has largely, if not entirely, vindicated Alan Walters’ scepticism about the ERM and the monetary union project to launch the Euro IMO but that is not how several members of her Cabinet and prominent Conservative politicians, like Heseltine, saw it. The ensuing infighting became rather nasty and the legacy of that remains, with the Europhiles repeatedly trying to justify past positions they took notwithstanding how events have panned out and the undeniable shift in public opinion polls in Britain towards a more Eurosceptic outlook. On the official Eurobarometer polls, British respondents regularly come out as among the most sceptical about the benefits of EU membership.

    Predictably, embattled Europhiles in Britain tend to invoke a whole armoury of pejorative descriptions to lay seige to the ascendant Eurosceptic sentiment – a favoured missile seems to consist of variations on “xenophobic little Englanders”. That might just have some credibility in respect of Murdoch press journalists, who conform with the genre, but hardly in respect of the widely regarded lead economic commentators in the Financial Times, like Sam Brittan and Martin Wolf, when the FT editorial line has been persistently pro-European.

    There is also no doubt that business sentiment in Britain has become more Eurosceptic over the past several years, perhaps in reaction to the ceaseless welter of new EU business regulations, perhaps because of the flagging performance of the three largest Eurozone economies. The fact is that by end 1995, Britain’s standardised unemployment rate had fallen below that of France, Germany and Italy and has stayed lower since. And Britain’s employment rate among the working-age population is higher too. With that and the reports of the re-emergence of large scale fraud in the EU Commission last summer and the refusal last November of the European Court of Auditors to endorse EU Commission accounts for the ninth year in succession, rampant Europhilia is rather apt to stretch even credulity to breaking point. Which perhaps explains just why flashing their pejoratives is all that is left for really dedicated Europhiles to do. And that doesn’t amount to much of a ratioonal argument.

  9. James

    Thanks. I too am tempted by PR-STV but I am not sure that it solves this particular problem. Ireland has PR-STV, and the consensus of research is that Irish legislature is just as subservient to any executive proposal.
    For myself, I would prefer a democratic second chamber with significant powers (more than the Irish Senate), elected on separate occasions from Dail/HoCommons elections. In the UK, this would mean a democratic House of Lords (or whatever you want to call it). But I am open to pursuasion.

  10. To clarify, I do actually support having a referendum. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have reservations. More full detail on my own site rather than clogging this one up anymore.

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