Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

The constitutional position of referendums in the UK

Ahead of today’s Commons vote on a possible EU referendum, some basic points that many are overlooking (originally posted as a comment over at Jon Worth’s place):

Referenda have a decidedly unclear position within the UK constitution. The people are not and never have been sovereign in the UK – sovereignty rests with Parliament (technically the Crown in Parliament), and anything that threatens parliamentary sovereignty could easily be challenged as unconstitutional. Direct democracy bypasses Parliament, therefore it easily falls into this category.

It always surprises me that anti-EU types don’t realise this, considering one of their key arguments against the EU is that it is unconstitutional for anyone/anything to be able to overrule Parliament (usually they quote the 1689 Bill of Rights – this has little/no actual legal weight, but the theory is still there).

This constitutional angle is a massively important point – advocating wider use of referenda would, if taken up, be one of the biggest changes to the UK constitution in 300+ years. It could potentially undermine the very foundations of how our political system works in ways far more widespread and unpredictable than anything we’ve seen via membership of the EEC/EU. There are no rules on what referenda should be used for, no rules on what they *shouldn’t* be used for, no rules on how they can be triggered, no rules on how they can be overruled.

Short-version – it’s dangerous to introduce any significant constitutional change without thinking through the consequences. In the rush to appease the politically vocal, we could do far, far more damage than any referendum-advocates realise.

See also: The case against referendums by Conservative peer and constitutional expert Lord Norton of Louth, whose key objections are that referendums are misleading, unbalanced and dangerous.

And also: Jon Worth making many of the same points as I do above – before we hold any more referenda, we need to work out what role they should have in the UK political system.