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In light of Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation, Stuart Ward reflects on the place of the referendum in UK politics, placing their use in the wider historical context of the end of the British empire.

Nicola Sturgeon’s shock departure as Scotland’s First Minister has many wondering whether the SNP will ever achieve its aim of a second independence referendum. Her inability to deliver on her own deadline of October this year was surely a major factor in her resignation. No doubt her successors will be wary about going down the same path without cast iron guarantees.

But we may well ask whether there will ever be another referendum in the UK, on any issue at all. The disruption and deadlock that paralyzed Theresa May’s government in the wake of Brexit, and the prime-time drama that was the House of Commons in 2019 underlined the perils of directly pitting the will of the people against the sovereignty of Parliament.

That fundamental problem has been around for more than a hundred years, ever since the revered constitutionalist, A. V. Dicey, first advocated for direct democracy to resolve the divisions over Irish Home Rule. How can referendums be made compatible with the principles of representative democracy as practiced in the UK – short of a radical constitutional overhaul to enact detailed written rules of implementation?

The notion that referendums are somehow alien to UK constitutional practice has become a familiar refrain each time they have been used. Harold Wilson was once the sworn enemy of plebiscitary politics – which he deemed ‘contrary to our traditions’ until he found it contrary to his political interests to avoid one. By asking the people to decide on British membership of the Common Market in 1975, he galvanized a broad spectrum of opposition (comprising the Sun, the Mirror and the Daily Mail), all railing against the intrusion of ‘continental’ procedures into the UK constitution.

Similar misgivings were voiced at the time of the UK’s first ever experiment in direct democracy – the Northern Ireland Border Poll of March 1973, where Edward Heath’s Conservative government asked Northern Irish voters to choose between the UK and the Irish Republic. The vote itself proved inconclusive, because of a nationalist boycott, but it remains important for the simple fact that it happened at all, conceding the principle that one part of the United Kingdom might conceivably take itself out of the Union.

The long-term implications of this did not pass unnoticed at the time. Labour’s David Owen mounted a passionate defence of parliamentary sovereignty, insisting that ‘the more complex the decision, the more difficult the decision, the worse an instrument for decision making a referendum is’. Why, he demanded to know, should Parliament introduce into one part of the UK a practice widely deemed antithetical to the spirit and logic of British constitutionalism?

It was no idle debating point, but a question that goes to the very heart of how referendums ever found a foothold in UK politics in the first place – and why they might never be used again.

Here, it is instructive to consider the example of Britain’s declining empire, where consulting the people was not only far more commonplace, but also less prone to principled objections. The North-West Frontier Provence referendum of July 1947 was to be the first of many decolonizing measures where a simple plebiscite was used to determine who belonged where. The exercise would be repeated in subsequent years in East Bengal, Newfoundland, Malta, Gibraltar, British Togoland and British Cameroons, with little sense that it was somehow foreign to British experience, or even mildly suspect.

Not only could referendums be perfectly British, but they were also used to determine the outer perimeters of Britishness itself. Small wonder, then, that the same consultative instrument suddenly seemed a logical way to resolve similar dilemmas in Northern Ireland in 1973.

In other words, the arrival of the referendum marked the point where the identity politics of empire’s end penetrated Britain’s borders. As the eminent constitutional authority, Ivor Jennings, once observed: ‘The people cannot decide until someone decides who are the people’. It was this fundamental question – who are ‘the people’ and what are their defining characteristics – that tied UK experience to a wider pattern of readjustment offshore.

Countless referendums throughout a changing Commonwealth would take up precisely this question in various guises – British sovereignty in the Falklands, ‘sovereignty sharing’ in Gibraltar, independence in Quebec and Bermuda, republican constitutions in Australia, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands, or even the recent attempt to remove the Union Jack from New Zealand’s flag by popular vote in 2016. All of these disparate examples hinged on whether the constitutional trappings of Britishness furnished an authentic sense of the people. In much the same way, calls for a second independence referendum for Scotland refuse to lie down, buoyed by an instinctive sense that Britishness is losing ground.

The Brexit referendum of 2016 was about many things, but it too can be viewed as an exercise in ‘determining selfhood’ for a people still grappling with their changing global coordinates. It is by no means fanciful to see oblique parallels with a much longer history of popular reinvention and reorientation in the long aftermath of empire – not least when the deliberative instrument itself was borrowed from wider imperial and Commonwealth experience.

One of the great myths of referendums is that they resolve divisive issues, rallying the people behind a clear manifestation of the collective will. That may be the case for settling relatively mundane political matters amenable to simple yes/no propositions. But in the realm of identity politics, the evidence of wider ‘British’ experience suggests that referendums rarely produce clear-cut solutions – and are almost never the end of the story.

It is this inherent volatility that has stigmatized plebiscitary politics in the UK today. It is hard to see how a majority in Westminster could be persuaded to consult the people directly, on virtually any issue.

But simply refusing point blank to contemplate further forays into direct democracy will ultimately prove counterproductive. Historical precedent has now repeatedly affirmed that ‘the people’ of the United Kingdom are not indissoluble. Depending on the question, they can be disaggregated into their constituent parts, who will not lightly tolerate Westminster intransigence over the longer term.

Advocates of the constitutional status quo may have seen Nicola Sturgeon off, but they would be ill-advised to rest on their laurels. If referendums are now deemed too politically risky, new thinking is needed to resolve the constitutional conundrum they have caused. If the UK Parliament is to remain sovereign, it must urgently address the unfinished business of the last two occasions – 2014 and 2016 respectively – when it ceded authority directly to the people.

By Stuart Ward, Professor of British imperial history, University of Copenhagen.

Stuart Ward’s new book Untied Kingdom: A Global History of the End of Britain is published by Cambridge University Press.


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