Who holds referendums?

Ballot-Paper-300x150I was somewhat surprised that the Queen’s Speech contained the statement ‘My Government will hold a referendum on membership of the European Union’.   My concern is the terminology.  The Government may propose a referendum, but has no power of its own to hold a referendum.  It may propose one and can introduce a Bill, as it did, to provide that one is held.  Parliament legislates for a referendum and the administration is undertaken by others.

The terminology is worrying in the context of the Government’s approach to constitutional issues.  It reflects a somewhat sloppy approach that has characterised succeeding governments.  There has been no intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change and a view, personified by Tony Blair, that the constitution is the servant of the government rather than the other way round.  Schoolchildren benefit from citizenship education.  Perhaps it should be extended to the Cabinet Office.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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3 Responses to Who holds referendums?

  1. Stephen MacLean says:

    We all need constitutional refreshers; perhaps nowhere more so than in America, with its division of powers between the state governments and the general government (the language of 1787), and in this latter between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

    Watch, too, Canada, where there is discussion about having a <a href="https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2016/05/11/let-the-people-vote-on-electoral-reform-editorial.html "referendum to changing voting procedure, currently first-past-the-post, with a ranked ballot or proportional representation as the primary possible replacements. The Liberal ministry is resistant, and the opposition parties are, as you would imagine, insistent.

  2. maude elwes says:

    We had a vote on PR but I feel the majority of the public, at the time, had no idea how important it is to have a count that is a genuine majority.. It was not explained in any reasonable way, so they sadly, voted against their best interests. However, I feel it was a fix by the way it was worded.

    It makes me furious as I am an avid voter who lives in what we call a safe seat. And that is a joke. For, regardless of my trouble, I know before I add my cross to the paper, I, in effect, have no vote. It is a waste of my time.

    So, the sooner we have a change to this ‘inappropriately named as democracy’ the better.

    PS: LN, I love the way you write. You so adroitly and politely know how to do a great put down. I long for such talent.

  3. maude elwes says:

    On the issue of wording and living in a a ‘democratic’ country, I am asking questions:

    1) How can the death of an MP, even though this death of the Labour MP was horrific, be used to sideline a by-election to replace a person supported by the people through their vote? Is the line of, ‘this is a safe seat so no need to ask the people to reinforce its authority’ the overriding permit given for this totally unacceptable move, Or, is it the people there should be punished because the perpetrator of this deranged act had hard right views and therefore the entire constituency lose their privilege of voting as they didn’t manage to alter his decision?

    2) Could it be something more sinister, such as, perhaps, the constituents may have changed their support in light of the In/Out referendum and that could upset the apple cart as her majority may no longer be in effect and could lead to an Out vote being exposed?


    To not allow a vote, even if it is put off for 2 months, must be anti democratic and one of the very major reasons for pulling out of Europe is its lack of democracy. Why is such a move, by all parties, so we are told, not illegal in a democracy? The constituents there may intensely dislike the propelled MP or be sorely displeased they were not given a choice. In effect another politically correct shove in. Shadows of Brown again. It didn’t save him when the people had their chance to oust him did it? What this does is to allow Democracy to be overtaken by a set up. Something we do not expect to be legal in a system like ours. And here it is happening all over again. Grief of individuals is not a reason to suspend the process of our system this way. As, if it were widespread the country could and would fall apart. What an irresponsible way to run a country this is.

    What the British electorate should take on board is how other countries, similar to our own, manage a truly democratic system that serves them well, and, could never work wholly in Europe as Europe’s basis for selection is akin to this move of removing the voter from selection. Appointment is not democracy. Something that could not happen in say, Switzerland.


    My primary question here, LN, is, why is this appointment not illegal in our system, as, if it isn’t, this practice could spread on any whim conjured?

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