By Ollie Stone-Lee
Clement Attlee echoed the views of many who believe referendums “are just not British” when he stressed they were too often used by dictators.
The Labour leader was responding in 1945 to Winston Churchill’s suggestion that a referendum be held on whether to extend the wartime coalition until after
A referendum was held on the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland
Attlee was right about the historical precedents of the device which will
give the people the final say if the government wants the UK to adopt the
Jeremy Black, professor of history at Exeter University, says going directly to the people through plebiscites was used not only by dictators on both right and left in the 20th century but by similar figures in the 19th.
“Basically, if you have demonic leaders it enables them to go in for the myth that they have a personal relationship with the people,” Prof Black told BBC News Online.
The need for a simple referendum question also lends itself to the politics of extremism, he says.
The historian suggests the origins of referendums, or at least the principle of direct voting, can be traced back to the origins of democracy itself.
Where Attlee was less accurate as he rejected Churchill’s suggestion was in his assertion that such a device was “alien to all our
The UK’s first national referendum – over British membership of the European Common Market – might not have been held for another 25 years but it was by no means the first time the idea had been mooted.
Indeed, Churchill himself had argued in 1910 for the issue of female
suffrage to be decided by a referendum.
But debate about the idea had been sparked in the early 1890s by constitutional expert A V Dicey and was taken up by opponents of Irish Home Rule.
Dicey called the referendum the “people’s veto”, adding: “The nation is sovereign and may well decree that the constitution shall not be changed without the direct sanction of the nation.”
Since then the referendum has twice been used to try to forge a solution of troubles in Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s electors voted on a 98.9% majority to remain in the UK after the collapse of the Stormont parliament in 1972 – although most nationalist voters abstained.
More recently the device was used to get popular approval for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – notable proof that a referendum result does not always end the arguments.
Tariff reform in the early 20th century was another divisive issue which attracted calls for a referendum – from Arthur Balfour in 1910 and two decades later by Stanley Baldwin,
Baldwin argued the issue was too vital to be “treated as a shuttlecock in party politics”, although tariff reform then, like Europe today, was as likely to cause splits within parties as it was to form battle lines between them.
The UK’s only national referendum was on that troubled issue of Europe.
The 1975 vote came despite the fact that just five years earlier the leaders of all three major parties, including Harold Wilson, Prime Minister at the time of the referendum, had
rejected the idea.
With Britain already inside the Common Market, the question was simple: “Do
you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (Common
Counting the votes in the Good Friday Agreement poll
Despite the “yes” campaign’s convincing two to one victory, the divisiveness of the European issue within the political establishment was clear.
Wilson’s cabinet had voted by 16-7 to recommend entry and found
itself campaigning alongside the Tory leadership and the CBI while the
unlikely bed-fellows on the “no” side included right-wing Conservative Enoch
Powell and Labour’s Michael Foot.
Some of the foot soldiers from that campaign may see a euro
referendum as the chance to renew the battle lines, although some
of them will now fight under a different banner.
It was ironically in the heart of the Palace of Westminster that the three
most powerful men in government decided Parliament would not have
the final say over Britain joining the euro.
With the Conservative Eurosceptics pressing for a harder line on
the single currency, a referendum on the issue offered a chance of party
unity to John Major, Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke as they talked in the
prime minister’s room in the Commons.
Heseltine now believes the move was a terrible mistake, especially as the
proviso that the pledge would be made only for the next Parliament was soon
In his autobiography, he highlights his conviction that referendums
are incompatible with the British traditions, as well as voicing a tactical concern.
“It ensured that the Labour Party were forced to follow suit by committing
themselves to a referendum as well,” says the former deputy prime minister.
In fact, Labour was already committed to obtaining the people’s consent for
euro entry – either through a general election or by referendum.
Yet, when Gordon Brown committed the party to a euro vote seven months
later, some commentators saw it as a move to match what the Tories, and
earlier still the Liberal Democrats, had already promised.
Since that decision, there have been a wave of referendums in the UK as several towns and cities follow London’s example in voting on whether to have an elected mayor.
More are to follow with the government’s plan for regional assemblies.
Welsh and Scottish devolution has been revisited after the issue lay dead in the years after the 1979 referendums.
Those saw the proponents of a Welsh Assembly soundly beaten, while those
demanding a Scottish Parliament won the vote but fell short of the
requirement for a 40% majority.
September 1997 saw the devolution dream at last realised but the Welsh result particularly, where the creation of a national assembly in Cardiff was endorsed by a 50.3% majority on a 50% turnout, showed referendums can be unpredictable.
The Irish vote on the Nice Treaty – though later reversed – and the Danish “no” to the euro are just two other hands from history that may weigh heavy on Tony Blair’s shoulders as he ponders if and when to hold a UK vote on the single currency.