Referendums in France and the UK
Date: 28 September 2011
The FBC held a small meeting chaired by Sir Stephen Wall on the subject of referendums at the House of Lords. The seminar looked at the lessons learnt from the May referendum and whether it has had an impact on French perceptions of the UK as an EU partner. Furthermore we looked at whether the referendum is a useful device in a parliamentary system or if it undermines parliamentary authority. In looking at this, comparisons were drawn to France and whether it has worked in favour of the president or whether it has backfired. Other issues looked at included referendums and the EU and whether referendums should be conducted like normal elections.
Issues debated included:
- Are referendums a valuable adjunct to the political system?
- How should referendums be conducted and what lessons can be learnt from recent examples?
- Do referendums undermine the authority of parliament and other systems of representative democracy
- How far have referendums in France served the interests of the President of the day and how far have they backfired?
Only a minority of participants were opposed outright to referendums, with the majority agreeing that on the whole they give legitimacy to parliamentary decisions, although this legitimacy is compromised by turnout. Matt Qvortrup, author of A Comparative Study of Referendums, presented an insightful report on the AV referendum concluding that the Yes side lost due to partisan interference which rendered the referendum a party battle, in particular a vote of no confidence against Nick Clegg, rather than being about the vote itself. Vernon Bogdanor, Emeritus Fellow at Brasenose College, Oxford, for this reason called the AV referendum a ‘caricature’, although argued that on the whole referendums have done Britain good. He also attributed the popularity of referendums in France compared to the UK to the differences between their respective political systems, with the parliament being sovereign in Britain, whereas in France it is the people who are sovereign. Laurence Morel, professor at Université Lille 2 argued that referendums often serve only to aggravate discontent by loosening party ties. Guy Carcassonne, professor at Paris X believed that whilst referendums are financially and logistically efficient, the system could be improved by implementing a more anonymous initiative whereby the results would not impinge on politicians’ standing in government. Peter Kellner proposed a totally new form of referendums, such as testing the proposition first, as was done in Stockhom for the referendum on introducing a congestion charge, where the charge was run for a trial period prior to the referendum. He suggested that referendums are currently ineffective because merely a binary choice does not give people what they want. Download the report.
Read an article by Matt Qvortrup here