Referendums in the United Kingdom - Constitution Committee Contents


In their survey of the international experience of referendums, David Butler and Austin Ranney noted that while the vast majority of democracies have held referendums, only a few have institutionalised them, and used them in anything other than an ad hoc fashion.[31] The vast majority of referendums are held at founding moments: decisions about joining a state or federation, accepting or rejecting new constitutions, or making constitutional revisions. Other referendums are held when elected leaders have reached an impasse on an issue, or when the issue itself is politically risky. Sometimes referendums are held to create broad, popular legitimacy for something that has generated party political division; or even to create party political advantage. Only a handful of states allow citizens themselves to initiate votes at the national level—Italy, New Zealand and Switzerland—and while several others, including the United States, allow them at sub-national level, the great majority of referendums have been government-initiated or constitutionally-triggered affairs.

In those places that have institutionalised referendums, their use is usually limited to the ratification of constitutional amendments. In Ireland, the President possesses the power to refer a bill to the electorate via an "ordinary referendum", but this power has never been used. Instead, there have been 31 constitutional referendums since 1937, all on proposed amendments that have passed through both the Dáil and the Senate, as required by Section 46 of the Irish constitution. Of those, only eight have failed. In Australia, by contrast, there have been 44 national referendums on constitutional amendments, but only eight successes. This is generally attributed to Australia's double-majority rule which requires amendments to receive an overall majority of votes in a majority of states. This measure is aimed at protecting small states against larger ones, and states' rights generally against the federal government. Ireland is a unitary state, and requires only a simple majority, making constitutional change easier.

Switzerland, however, is the place where the referendum is perhaps most embedded in the political system. Their use at the canton level goes back at least to the 13th century, and probably longer. Their use at the national level resulted from efforts to reunify the federation following a civil war in 1848. Four kinds of referendum are available, three constitutional and one legislative. The four, and the year they were created, are:

·  obligatory, which require government changes to the constitution to be ratified (1848);

·  constitutional revision, a citizens' device for overall constitutional change (1848);

·  facultative, a citizens' device to send specific legislation to a vote (1874); and

·  initiative, a citizens' device for individual constitutional amendments (1891).

The Swiss do not have a device allowing citizens to propose legislation at the federal level. Specific proposals on issues like drugs or immigration policy must therefore be dressed as constitutional amendments. Voter participation rates are around the 40 per cent mark, but controversial topics generate much higher rates. Votes tend to deliver quite clear majorities, with few votes being won or lost narrowly. Government proposals and counter-proposals have a much higher success rate, 65 per cent, than citizens' initiatives at ten per cent. The frequency of ballots rises and falls, but the Swiss will often face two or three federal votes a year, in addition to canton and communal measures. This is partly because signature targets are very low for citizens' initiatives—petitions only require 50,000 signatures for facultative referendums, 100,000 for initiatives. Despite the low hurdle, the device is most used by organised interest groups and smaller political parties as an agenda-setting tool, because the resources required to campaign effectively at the national scale are substantial. Most notable in this regard has been the right-wing Swiss People's Party, which used a series of anti-immigrant initiatives and facultative referendums to increase its electoral support over the last two decades, moving from fourth to become the largest party in the Federal Assembly.

Other jurisdictions that allow citizens' initiatives see similar patterns: relatively few close-run votes; dominance by the well-resourced; government proposals having higher success rates than citizens' initiatives; variable but often low participation rates. The exception is California, where votes are more likely to be close-run than not, something that has been attributed to the polarisation of American politics more generally.

New Zealand is the only other Westminster-based system that uses referendums, albeit sporadically. With no codified constitution and parliamentary sovereignty, referendums are generally held either when governments enact specific enabling legislation, or via citizens' initiative. The Electoral Act 1993 specifies that the term of Parliament may only be changed by a vote of 75 per cent of Members of Parliament or by a referendum. There have been seven national, government-initiated referendums on issues including the voting system, the term of Parliament and national military service, as well as triennial liquor licensing referendums between 1911 and 1989. New Zealand is one of the few countries with experience of the multi-option referendum: the 1992 vote on the electoral system included four options for change. Since the citizens' initiative device was created in 1993, there have been 36 petitions launched but only four have qualified for the ballot, partly thanks to New Zealand's very high signature threshold (ten per cent of registered electors at the last General Election), the non-binding nature of the vote, and the NZ$50,000 spending cap imposed on organisations in both the signature-gathering and campaigning phases. These limiting features, paradoxically, make New Zealand the one place where the general rule about elite dominance of citizen-initiated referendums does not hold true.

30   This appendix was written for the Committee by Dr John Parkinson, Specialist Adviser. Back

31   David Butler and Austin Ranney, Referendums around the world: the growing use of direct democracy (Washington, DC, 1994), p 1. Back

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