Referenda – What On Earth Do They Mean?

Another referendum has come and gone. This time in Italy.

A high turnout of voters soundly rejected Matteo Renzi’s proposed constitutional reforms. Renzi will, tomorrow, hand his resignation to the President of the Republic. What follows next is a matter of much speculation.

But speculation does not stop there.

As always following referenda, everyone jumps to interpret the result in whichever way suits them best. For some, the Italian referendum result is a total rejection of the status quo, a repudiation of the European Union, a fightback against the establishment, a protest against the perceived failings of the current administration, and so on and so forth. Everyone pretends to know exactly why every single citizen voted the way they did.

The same thing followed the Dutch referendum on the proposed EU partnership with Ukraine. And of course, following the outcome of the Brexit referendum. For Brexiteers, this was a total rejection of anything to do with the EU including access to the single market and the customs union. For the Remainers, this was simply a protest vote against the Establishment and the British people did not vote for their own impoverishment – they want to stay in the single market and the customs union.

All such speculation is, of course, pure nonsense. Every citizen had his or her particular reason to vote how they did. To attempt to interpret the vote as a single, monolithic statement about all kinds of things that were never on the ballot paper is dishonest – and the voters easily see through it.

The only things that can be said with certainty is that Italian voters voted against the proposed constitutional change and British voters voted to leave the EU. If either referendum leads to early elections, the voters will again have their say on who they would like to place in Government. Failing that, governments have no mandate to do anything else other than what was on the ballot paper. The British government has a mandate to exit the EU – or, depending on the outcome of the current Supreme Court case, to ask for parliament’s assent to leave the Union. But it has no popular mandate that defines the shape that exit should take.

No matter how loud both sides of the debate shout, nothing is going to change those facts.

The only question at issue is: how does the British government deal with not having such a mandate? Through parliamentary approval of any proposed deal with the EU, through another referendum, or through the use of its executive powers? We can all reasonably disagree on which would be the best way forward in the interests of openness and democratic accountability.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Stephen Gwynne says

    The exit is the simple bit and for that there is a clear mandate – leave the european union. What is not so clear is therefore not the exit but what kind of relationship to have with the eu after exitting. This is why any bill to leave the eu can be contained within a single sentence. However what happens after and what will actually constitute a new treaty with the eu is the uk’s relationship with the eu following the exit. This will be the decision of mps and the electorate within this existing government as well as future governments since any treaty can be revised, amended or rejected in accordance with international law.

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