Skip to main content

How to refuse a vote on the EU? The case against the referendum in the House of Commons (1974–2010)

Abstract

Under what conditions do politicians oppose referendums especially to decide questions of European integration? Existing literature has identified reasons why governments and political parties pledge to hold non-mandatory referendums to ratify EU treaties or determine a country’s participation in the EU project, and some studies have analysed the effect of voter demand and attitudes towards EU referendums. This study examines the positions politicians themselves take towards popular participation in decision-making on the EU. The paper presents a summative content analysis of parliamentary debates in the United Kingdom between 1974 and 2010, tracing MPs’ arguments against using referendums to determine the UK’s participation in EU integration. Our results indicate that the range of claims made by MPs in the House of Commons against referendums on European matters has narrowed over time, although opposing arguments have continued to fall into the same set of four argumentative strategies. We find that institutional arguments, reflecting a Burkean understanding of representative democracy, consistently predominate over arguments that cite practical, political and manipulation concerns.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Notes

  1. 1.

    Referendums are said to be ‘pro-hegemonic’ when they are used by the ruling elites only to strengthen their power (see Qvortrup 2002).

  2. 2.

    ALCESTE stands for Analyse des Lexèmes Co-occurents dans les Énnoncés Simples d’un texte (analysis of the co-occurring lexemes within the simple statements of a text). Its algorithm, based on Benzecri’s contributions in textual statistics, was created by Max Reinert.

  3. 3.

    The full Alceste and NVivo reports produced for this research, the original dataset and the coding scheme are available on a webpage dedicated to this study.

  4. 4.

    The Amsterdam and Nice Treaties in the late 1990 s and early 2000 s, respectively, also generated fewer discussions about the use of the referendum.

  5. 5.

    HC Deb 12 Nov 2003 c310.

  6. 6.

    HL Deb 14 July 1993 c267.

References

  1. Allen, N., Mirwaldt, K.: ‘Democracy-speak: party manifestos and democratic values in Britain, France and Germany. West Eur. Polit. 33(4), 870–893 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bächtiger, A., Steiner, J.: Empirical approaches to deliberative democracy. Acta Polit. 40(2), 153–168 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bara, J., Weale, A., Bicquelet, A.: Analysing parliamentary debate with computer assistance. Swiss J. Polit. Sci. 13(4), 577–605 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Barber, B.R.: Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. University of California Press, Berkeley (1984)

    Google Scholar 

  5. Beer, S.: Modern British Politics: a Study of Parties and Pressure Groups. Faber, London (1965)

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bicquelet, A., Weale, A., Bara, J.: In a different parliamentary voice? Polit. Gender 8(1), 83–121 (2012)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Binzer-Hobolt, S.: Direct democracy and European integration. J. Eur. Public Policy 13(1), 153–166 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bjørklund, T.: The demand for referendum: when does it arise and when does it succeed? Scand. Polit. Stud. 5(3), 237–259 (1982)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Bogdanor, V.: Western Europe. In: Butler, D., Ranney, A. (eds.) Referendums Around the World, pp. 24–98. AEI Press, Washington (1994)

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  10. Brugidou, M.: Argumentation and values: an analysis of ordinary political competence via an open-ended question. Int. J. Public Opin. Res. 15(4), 413–430 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Budge, I.: The New Challenge of Direct Democracy. Polity Press, Cambridge (1996)

    Google Scholar 

  12. Butler, D., Ranney, A. (eds.): Referendums Around the World: The Growing Use of Direct Democracy. Macmillan, Basingstoke (1994)

    Google Scholar 

  13. Chadwick, A., May, C.: ‘Interactions between States and Citizens in the Age of the Internet: ‘e-Government’ in the United States, Britain and the European Union. Governance 16(2), 271–300 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Closa, C.: Why convene referendums? Explaining choices in EU constitutional politics. J. Eur. Public Policy 14(8), 1311–1332 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Dalton, R., Burklin, W., Drummond, A.: Public opinion and direct democracy. J. Democr. 12(4), 141–153 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Dür, A., Mateo, G.: To call or not to call: political parties and referendums on the EU’s constitutional treaty. Comp. Polit. Stud. 44(4), 468–492 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Emerson, M.: The uncertainty created by David Cameron’s policy on EU membership may cost the UK’s already troubled economy. British Politics and Policy at LSE (09 Feb 2013) Blog Entry (2013)

  18. Finke, D., König, T.: Why risk popular ratification failure? A comparative analysis of the choice of the ratification instrument in the 25 member states of the EU. Const. Polit. Econ. 20(3), 341–365 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Garry, J., Marsh, M., Sinnott, R.: Second order versus issue voting effects in EU referendums: evidence from the Irish Nice Treaty referendums. Eur. Union Polit. 6(2), 201–221 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Grande, E.: Post-National Democracy in Europe. In: Greven, M., Louis, W. (eds.) Democracy Beyond the State: The European Dilemma and the Emerging Global Order, pp. 115–138. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham (2000)

    Google Scholar 

  21. Grant, C.: The UK and the European Union: about Cameron’s optimistic, risky and ambiguous strategy. WeltTrends-Zeitschrift für internationale Politik 89, 10–15 (2013)

    Google Scholar 

  22. Grossman, K.L.: The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age. Viking, New York (1995)

    Google Scholar 

  23. Guerin-Pace, F.: Textual statistics. An exploratory tool for the social sciences. N. Methodol. Approaches Soc. Sci. 10(1), 73–95 (1998)

    Google Scholar 

  24. Hall, P., Taylor, R.: Political science and the three new institutionalisms. Polit. Stud. 44(5), 936–958 (1996)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Haskell, J.: Direct Democracy or Representative Government: Dispelling the Populist Myth (Boulder. Westview Press), CO (2001)

    Google Scholar 

  26. Herzog, A., Benoit, K.: The most unkindest cuts: government cohesion and economic crisis. In: Paper Presented at the Annual General Conference of the European Political Science Association (2013). http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2225069

  27. Hsieh, H.-F., Shannon, S.E.: Three approaches to qualitative content analysis. Qual. Health Res. 15(9), 1277–1288 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Hug, S.: Voices of Europe: Citizens, Referendums and European Integration. Rowman & Littlefield, Boulder, CO (2002)

    Google Scholar 

  29. Hug, S.: Occurrence and policy consequences of referendums: a theoretical model and empirical evidence. J. Theor. Polit. 16(3), 321–356 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Hug, S., Sciarini, P.: Referendums on European integration: do institutions matter in the voter’s decision? Comp. Polit. Stud. 33(1), 3–36 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Jahn, D., Storsved, A.S.: ‘Legitimacy Through Referendum? The Nearly Successful Domino-Strategy of the EU-Referendums in Austria, Finland, Sweden and Norway. West Eur. Polit. 18(4), 18–37 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Kaufmann, B., Waters, M.D. (eds): Direct Democracy in Europe. A Comprehensive Reference Guide to the Initiative and Referendum Process in Europe. Carolina Academic Press, Durham (2004)

  33. King, A.: The British Constitution. Oxford University Press, Oxford (2007)

    Google Scholar 

  34. Kittilson, M.C., Scarrow, S.E.: Political Parties and the Rhetoric and Realities of Democratization. In: Cain, B.E., Dalton, R.J., Scarrow, S.E. (eds.) Democracy Transformed? Expanding Political Opportunities in Advanced Industrial Democracies, pp. 59–81. Oxford University Press, Oxford (2003)

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  35. LeDuc, L.: The Politics of Direct Democracy: Referendums in Global Perspective. Broadview Press, Peterborough (2003)

    Google Scholar 

  36. Lewins, A., Silver, C.: Using Software in Qualitative Research: A Step-by-Step guide. Sage, London (2007)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  37. Lijphart, A.: Democracies. Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-One Countries. Yale University Press, New Haven (1984)

    Google Scholar 

  38. Lindgren, K.O., Persson, T.: Input and output legitimacy: synergy or trade-off? Empirical evidence from an EU survey. J. Eur. Publ. Policy 17(4), 449–467 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Lindberg, L.N., Scheingold, S.A.: Europe’s Would-be Polity: Patterns of Change in the European Community. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs (1970)

    Google Scholar 

  40. Locke, J.: Two Treaties of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration. In: Shapiro, I. (ed.) Yale University Press, New Haven (1690)

  41. Lowe, W., Benoit, K., Mikhaylov, S., Laver, M.: Scaling policy preferences from coded political texts. Legisl. Stud. Q. 36(1), 123–155 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Lupia, A.: Shortcuts versus encyclopedias: information and voting behavior in California Insurance Reform Elections. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 88(1), 63–76 (1994)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Magleby, D.: Direct Legislation: Voting on Ballot Propositions in the United States. John Hopkins Universty Press, Baltimore, MD (1984)

    Google Scholar 

  44. Magnette, P.: European Governance and Civic Participation: beyond elitist citizenship? Polit. Stud. 51(1), 144–160 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Morel, L.: Party attitudes towards referendums in Western Europe. West Eur. Polit. 16(3), 225–244 (1993)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Morel, L.: The rise of government-initiated referendums in consolidated democracies. In: Mendelsohn, M., Parkin, A. (eds.) Referendum Democracy: Citizens, Elites and Deliberation in Referendum Campaigns. Palgrave, New York (2001)

    Google Scholar 

  47. Morel, L.: The rise of “politically obligatory” referendums: the 2005 French referendum in comparative perspective. West Eur. Polit. 30(5), 1041–1067 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Pierson, P.: Increased returns, path dependence, and the study of politics. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 94(2), 251–267 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Priestley, J.: David Cameron’s argument will fool no-one, and will relegate the existing EU-UK relationship to the periphery. LSE European Politics and Policy (EUROPP) Blog (23 Jan 2013) Blog Entry (2013)

  50. Putnam, R.D.: Diplomacy and domestic politics: the logic of a two-level game. Int. Org. 42(3), 427–460 (1988)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Qvortrup, M.: A comparative study of referendums: Government by the people. Manchester University Press, Manchester (2002)

    Google Scholar 

  52. Qvortrup, M.: Democracy by delegation: the decision to hold referendums in the United Kingdom. Representation 42(1), 59–72 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Qvortrup, M.: The politics of participation: From Athens to e-democracy. Manchester University Press, Manchester (2007)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  54. Scharpf, F. W.: Governing in Europe: effective and Democratic? Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York (1999)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  55. Schneider, G., Weitsman, P.: The punishment trap: integration referendums as popularity contests. Comp. Polit. Stud. 28(4), 582–607 (1996)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Schonhardt-Bailey, C.: Measuring ideas more effectively: an analysis of Bush and Kerry’s National Security Speeches. Polit. Sci. Polit. 38(3), 701–711 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Shepsle, K., Weingast, B.: The Institutional Foundations of Committee Power. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 81(1), 85–104 (1987)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Skinner, Q.: Visions of Politics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2002)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  59. Steiner, J., Bächtiger, A., Spörndli, M., Steenbergen, M.R.: Deliberative Politics in Action: Analyzing Parliamentary Discourse. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2004)

    Google Scholar 

  60. Toffler, A., Toffler, H.: Creating a new civilization. The politics of the third wave. Turner, Atlanta (1995)

    Google Scholar 

  61. Toulmin, S.: The Uses of Argument. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1969)

    Google Scholar 

  62. Tridimas, G.: Ratification through referendum or parliamentary vote: when to call a non-required referendum? Eur. J. Polit. Econ. 23, 674–692 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Wallace, W., Smith, J.: Democracy or technocracy? European integration and the problem of popular consent. West Eur Polit. 18(3), 137–157 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Weale, A., Bicquelet, A., Bara, J.: Debating Abortion: deliberative reciprocity and parliamentary advocacy. Polit. Stud. 60(3), 643–667 (2012)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Weiler, J.: The European union belongs to its citizens. Three immodest proposals. Eur. Law Rev. 22(2), 150–156 (1997)

    Google Scholar 

  66. Widfeldt, A.: Elite collusion and public defiance: Sweden’s euro referendum in 2003. West Eur. Polit. 27(3), 503–518 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

We thank the ESRC for a Grant to fund this work (ref: 026-27- 2431). We are also very grateful to Albert Weale, Ken Benoit, Simon Hix and Nick Allen who provided helpful comments and suggestions on our manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Aude Bicquelet.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bicquelet, A., Addison, H. How to refuse a vote on the EU? The case against the referendum in the House of Commons (1974–2010). Qual Quant 51, 2141–2162 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11135-016-0374-6

Download citation

Keywords

  • Content analysis
  • Parliamentary debates
  • Referendum
  • Computer assisted text analysis