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16 September 2014updated 09 Jun 2021 2:05pm

The age of the referendum: why do politicians offer them, and do we trust them?

What explains the surge in politicians using referendums, and why hasn't the British public embraced them?

By Tim Wigmore

We live in the age of the referendum. The Scottish independence referendum is the 12th major referendum to be held in the United Kingdom since 1973. If the Conservatives form a government next year, the 13th will happen by the end of 2017, when the UK – with or without Scotland – votes on whether or not to leave the European Union.

What explains the surge in referendums? For political leaders, they are an expedient way of concealing divisions in a party. They offer a way for Prime Ministers to fudge a compromise necessary to prevent a party split – at least in the short-term – as in the offers of a referendum on Europe served by both Harold Wilson in 1975 and David Cameron today.

The rise in referendums owes nothing to the democratic impulses of political leaders. It has been driven by the collapse of two party politics in Britain. From sharing 97 per cent of the vote in 1951, and 90 per cent in 1970, the Conservatives and Labour only mustered a combined 65 per cent of the vote in 2010.

This has created a messier politics. Rising forces of nationalism have driven calls for increased powers to Scotland and Wales and, in the shape of the Ukip insurgency, irrevocable pressure on David Cameron to promise a referendum on the EU. If two party politics were alive and well, there would have been no referendum on the Alternative Vote.

Yet the British people’s embrace of referendums is less clear.

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Turnout at general elections has collapsed. But apathy has been even more pronounced at referendums. Distrust of politicians is so great that we are suspicious of their motives for offering a referendum: no government would call an awkward referendum if it could avoid it.

Turnout in the last ten referendums, stretching back to the vote on Europe in 1975, has been 53.9 per cent. In each of the last three referendums, on the creation of an elected assembly in the north-east, increased devolution for Wales and the Alternative Vote, fewer than half of eligible voters have bothered to vote.

More referendums are sometimes imagined as a panacea to the disconnect with politics. But the challenge of engaging the electorate is much deeper than simply giving them more things to vote on.

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