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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Referendal Politics Could Be (Re)birth of Contemporary Democracy

Referendal Politics Could Be (Re)birth of Contemporary Democracy

Voters pass judgments in elections and referenda. Not always convenient to rulers, but they’re here to stay in modern democracy as people express opinions. This article first published on Suite 101, 9 November 2011.

Matthew D’Ancona used the phrase ‘referendal politics’ in the Daily Telegraph, November 2011, in relation to the fightback and rebirth of (new) democracy in the face of bureaucratic, outdated elites now running Europe.
However, as so often in history, politics and news, it’s an old term brought back in a different context. A book by Corinne Comstock Weston (1995) about The House of Lords and ideological Politics, analysed what was called ‘Lord Salisbury’s Referendal Theory’ in relation to the Conservative Party 1846-1922.
While Britain then was gradually embracing democracy, the House of Lords was seen ‘as the last bastion of hereditary aristocratic privilege and power’. Weston explained the concept as a form of direct democracy.

It was a device by Lord Salisbury, Primer Minister (1885, 1886-1892 and 1895-1902) to sustain the Lords’ power, and evolved into the ‘Salisbury Doctrine’, whereby the Lords will not reject at 2nd or 3rd reading any Bill from the Commons for which the Government of the day has a mandate from voters.

Today’s Referenda

In the heated climate of financial crisis across much of the world, ‘referendum’ is beginning to mean different things to different people. D’Ancona called the euro ‘a political project, based on a quasi-religious view of history and Europe’s destiny’. Its worshippers failed to appreciate ‘the resilience of the nation state’, even in a world where technology, money and people flow across borders with ease.

It’s the euro and now the broader issue of the EU that has become the crisis itself. When Greek premier George Papandreou emerged from the Cannes summit that was meant to solve the eurozone crisis, he stunned leaders (particularly Germany’s Merkel and France’s Sarkozy, self appointed kingpins of the EU) by declaring he would put the solution to a referendum of the Greek people.

That other leaders should be shocked, was itself more shocking. Why shouldn’t people have a say on what concerns them and the futures of their grandchildren? But then Europe and referenda are unhappy partners.

In 1992 Denmark voted 49.3% for and 50.7% against the Maastricht Treaty. A year later they were made to vote again, this time coupled with the Edinburgh Agreement and it was approved. French voters rejected the Constitutional Treaty in 2005 by 54.6% to 45.3%. It made no difference; Europe adopted the treaty.

2001 saw Irish voters turn out to express their views on the Treaty of Nice. They rejected it, 53.9% to 46.1%. That was not what the Euro elite wanted, so they had to vote again in 2002 when 62.8% agreed, with 37.1% still unpersuaded. The impression was given that they would have had to keep voting till the ‘right outcome’ was achieved. They did vote against the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008.

British voters were not asked if they wanted to join the Common Market, but in 1975 voted to stay in. The opportunity to allow voters to express a view on anything European was turned down by Parliament in 2011 through heavy whipping and pressure in the Conservative Party.

This flew in the face of Prime Minister Cameron’s promise in opposition to hold a referendum, and in what the majority of voters said they wanted through opinion polls: a vote on changing the relationship of the UK to a very different Europe when the single currency collapses or rejects failing economies, or to leave the EU altogether.

Cameron had been advised that his rebels were the ‘usual suspects’ from the John Major years (1991-1997) of destructive political infighting about Europe and could be sidelined. In fact over half were from the 2010 intake of MPs, who put constituents’ views before hope of office for themselves.

Referendal Politics

Nation states, according to D’Ancona, follow fiscal strategies that suit them and have survived five decades of ‘euro-bombast’. He described today’s referendal politics: ‘direct democracy, plebiscites, e-petitions, the “Occupy” protests around the world, even the culture of phone voting in television shows: it’s here that the impetus and the energy lie, uncoordinated and multidirectional though the phenomenon may be’.

The entire EU psychology is ‘out of kilter with the modern surge in popular protest’. His article is part of an increasing move by the political commentary class away from slavish support of the old Euro ideal towards a beneficial grouping of nation states.

Protest is hardly new. The 1960s gave the world protest about racial equality, abortion and war in a more direct and effective way than most of today’s objections are voiced. Theatre is still the home of overt and covert protest against (rarely for) the status quo. The west entered an era of post-democracy fifty years ago. It’s now leaving that era and starting a modernised democratic one.

The latest epetition to reach 100,000 names on the Parliamentary website calls for a debate on immigration. It may be inconvenient for the coalition government ‘at this time’ to debate it, but if that’s what people want, that they should have, shouldn’t they?


  • Daily Telegraph, Matthew D’Ancona, The Euro elite are totally out of touch with the modern world, 5 November 2011. Web 8 November 2011.
  • The House of Lords and Ideological Politics: Lord Salisbury’s Referendal Theory and the Conservative Party 1846-1922 (1995). Web 8 November 2011.
  • Folketinget, Which EU referenda have taken place in which EU states? Web 9 November 2011.

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