In his latest article, Stephen Bailey argues that we need to restore our British tradition of representative, parliamentary democracy. Our party position is that while the EU referendum showed the silent majority support a sovereign Britain, as a referendum it left the old establishment still in charge at Westminster, and as we can see they are now selling us out. The only way to truly leave the EU is to elect a majority of MPs with the will to do so, and that is what we must now focus our efforts on doing.
Why is it that Remainers complain incessantly that the EU referendum was only an 'advisory poll' and that the Commons should have the ultimate say on whether the UK should leave the EU? Surely, the same could be said about the referenda that set up devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? If the Remainers insist on the primacy of Parliament and disavow the referendum device then it is also true that devolution has no democratic validity to it. They can't have it both ways.
Historically, the referendum device is alien to the UK’s parliamentary traditions. The concept of asking the electorate to directly decide on a political issue has always generally been regarded as a highly suspicious foreign idea by both the political class and the public at large. Clement Attlee, the great reforming post-war Labour Prime Minister dismissed them derisively as ‘a device for despots and dictators’, and, indeed, the UK’s first nationwide referendum was only held on June 6th 1975 to decide on whether or not to ratify our entry into the E.E.C., which Ted Heath had taken the country into without consultation two years earlier.
He was right. Referenda, and plebiscites, are a common tool of continental politicians, both historically and in more recent times. The prime example of this, in the modern period, was France, during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era. It all began in July 1793, when a draft constitution (which had been drawn up by Maximilian Robespierre) was put to the people to accept or reject. Despite the fact that almost three quarters of the electorate didn’t bother voting, the new constitution was approved by 99.41% of those that did. A year later, in 1794, the Directory, the five man leadership council that had replaced Robespierre as the leaders of France, held another referendum to legitimise their take over of power which returned a 95% vote of approval, Indeed, it was to become a feature of future referenda that despots and dictators were to regularly receive approval ratings in referenda in the 90’s percentage range.
France, under the control of Napoleon Bonaparte, was to continue its use of the referenda device as a tool for getting approval for the regime’s policies. He employed referenda on several occasions throughout his period of ascendency from 1800-1815. It all started in 1800, after he had returned to France as a young general buoyed up by a series of impressive military victories in Italy and Egypt and overthrown the Directory and established himself as the country’s leader, or First Consul. Napoleon continued to rely heavily on using various referenda to seek public approval of his decisions and policies throughout the Peninsular War until his downfall after thedefeat at Waterloo in 1815, most notably in 1800 in order to get public approval for his overthrow of the Directory and his assumption of power in 1802 when he became First Consul for life; 1804 when he became Emperor and April 1815, to get public approval for his return from exile in Elba and his displacement of the Bourbon Monarchy.
The Bonaparte dynasty continued Napoleon’s penchant for referenda. His nephew Louis used them to win popular approval of his violent seizure of power decades after his uncle had been overthrown and exiled. He carried out his coup in Paris on December 2nd 1852. He held a referendum three weeks later to validate his seizure of power. To ensure the correct result, he censored the press and banned public meetings. Unsurprisingly, he succeeded in securing a confirmatory vote. A year later, another referendum was used to confirm the birth of the Second Bonapartist Empire and the elevation of Louis to the imperial title of Napoleon III.
Moving into the Twentieth Century, various totalitarian dictators employed referenda, and also more accurately plebiscites, to win public support for their actions. The fascist dictators were especially guilty of this, most notably Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy.The Nazis had new media tools at their disposal that greatly increased their ability to influence the masses in making their decision on how to vote in such polls, most obviously radio and cinema news reels. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels made much use of both devices to ensure that the Nazis’ message got through to the German public. Referenda were used to get approval for Hitler’s assumption of supreme power in August 1934, when he amalgamated the offices of Chancellor and President to become Fuhrer after the death of Paul Hindenburg. Subsequent referenda were used by Hitler to get support for his programme to re-capture former German territory that had been lost after her defeat in the Great War: the Saar (1935) and the Rhineland (1936) are two examples. A referendum was also used to validate the absorption of Austria into the Reich in 1938.
Post 1945, it was French President Charles de Gaulle who became a serial user of referenda in order to get his own way. He used them to get approval for France’s new constitution in 1958 and also to approve his actions pertaining to Algerian independence. In more recent years, it has been Europe’s new controlling power, the EU, (controlled by Germany and France) that has used referenda to get its way. The usual method employed by the bloc if a treaty is rejected by a member state is to make them keep voting until they vote ‘yes’ to its proposals.
So, as has been demonstrated above, referenda have a very dubious history as the tool of continental dictators and despots to force through their political will, often against the wishes of the country they govern. England, Great Britain and later the U.K. only started using them in the late Twentieth Century (1975 to be precise). They are foreign to our long established democratic traditions and are too easily employed as a device for a despotic leader to force through his will against the wishes of the democratic majority. They are not for us here in the U.K.
England, Great Britain and then the United Kingdom has a long, storied history of representative parliamentary democracy. It hasn’t always been perfect, especially in the early period of development up to the Nineteenth Century, but the UK has developed into a mature and stable democracy, at least up until the ill-thought out constitutional vandalism of the New Labour’s era balkanised and destabilised this country’s body politic.
It is easy, and perhaps accurate, to assert that the UK’s political system of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries was not really that democratic as there was a very limited franchise, with only men of a certain social status and wealth allowed to participate and the corruption of rotten boroughs being issues to a certain degree. However, this situation was dynamic and fluid and pressure from certain reformist groups did lead to the gradual expansion of the electoral franchise to a large percentage of the population. This is an important factor in the development of the UK’s political system. Progress could be slow and the system was unfair and had some areas of corruption. However, change and progress did usually prevail and so the frustrations of the population were vented. Consequently, passions never became so bad as to lead to violent revolution. Progress with stability was generally the order of the day in this country.
This wasn’t the case on the Continent, where severely repressive political systems and leaders prevailed. Continental Europe was ruled by a varied collection of authoritarian Emperors, monarchs and dictators. France was ruled by an ultra-conservative monarchy, like Louis XIV, who kept the country under a suffocating blanket of repressive conservative policies that kept the country locked securely in an almost Medieval like state right up until the late Eighteenth Century. The Bonaparte dynasty continued the trend of keeping democracy and real progress out of France in the Nineteenth Century. Germany was a similar case under the Prussian Kaisers. Italy and Spain remained under the yoke of very repressive monarchies, then dictators, right up until 1975 in the case of Franco in Spain. This political repression led to bitter resentment building up in the population of these countries and a critical mass of such resentment exploding into very violent revolutions and consequently, the Continent suffered a long history of violent revolutionary change in its political systems.
The UK’s island story is markedly different. Whilst we certainly have been influenced by many ideas from the Continent, the Renaissance and the Reformation to name two important examples, and of course, having had waves of different peoples populate the island (Romans, Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Normans Et Al), being an island has led to us developing our own sense of identity as a nation. As previously stated, these islands have always been open to outside ideas and influences and are generally desirous of absorbing new ideas from elsewhere if they are relevant to us, however a definite sense of distinctive Britishness has developed that is unique to us and different from the Continent (or anywhere else). One facet of this has been our political system and our liking for representative democracy. Referenda have never been a part of this system, at least until the mid 1970’s.
The SNP, Plaid Cymru and Irish nationalist’s use of referenda to achieve their aims of independence goes directly against centuries of political traditions in the British Isles. Their position on the use of the referendum device is confused and contradictory. They insist that Parliament should have the final say on the Brexit deal as it is sovereign in the UK’s political system and referenda are only advisory polls whilst insisting that it is perfectly democratically valid for their parts of the UK to achieve independence through referenda. In fact, such polls are alien to the UK’s political tradition and representative parliamentary democracy is much more in line with our traditions and practice that has made us such the mature and stable country that we were until very recently.
© Stephen Bailey 2018.