The referendum is an instrument of popular sovereignty, an institutional expression of the doctrine that political sovereignty derives from the people. In Britain, it has been used on a small range of issues, primarily to secure legitimacy. Some matters, especially those which involve a transfer of sovereignty, are so fundamental that the public may not accept a decision made by parliament alone as legitimate. In the 1970s, it has been suggested, Edward Heath took the British establishment into Europe, but it was left to Harold Wilson to bring the British people into Europe. Today, the establishment continues to favour membership, the people do not. That is the basic case for an `in-out' referendum.

One difficulty with the referendum is that the question is decided by the politicians, not by the voters. The questionthat the voters wish to answer may not be on the ballot paper. In 2011, survey evidence indicated that the favoured option for most electoral reformers was proportional representation, not the alternative vote. Yet that option was not on the ballot paper. In Scotland, survey evidence indicates that further devolution is the favoured option rather than the status quo or independence. Yet that option is not to be on the ballot paper. On Europe. David Cameron proposes a referendum on renegotiated terms of membership, but survey evidence indicates that people favour an in/out referendum. Some means, therefore, should be found for taking the referendum out of the hands of the politicians.

Prof Vernon Bogdanor CBE will is Professor of Government at the Institute of Contemporary History, King’s College, London. He was formerly for many years Professor of Government at Oxford University. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences.

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