Long life

A lesson from Italy on the futility of referendums

A recent referendum there shows how, if you ask people to answer a stupid question, most will refuse to do so

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

As we prepare in Britain for our momentous referendum in June, Italy has just had one. It happened last Sunday while I was on holiday in Tuscany, and it was about as futile an exercise in democracy as there could be. Italy has lots of referendums. They come in two kinds. First, there is the constitutional referendum, which is used to approve any change to the constitution that has been passed twice by both houses of parliament. Then there is the popular referendum, which is held by popular demand to request the abolition of the other kinds of law that parliament has enacted.

Constitutional referendums are rare. Since the famous one of 1946, when Italians narrowly voted to abolish the monarchy and replace it with a republic, there have been only two, both of them in this century and both concerned with the devolution of powers to Italy’s 20 regions. But there is to be another one this October to approve changes to the country’s bicameral system of government, in which the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are now both elected and conduct legislative battles on equal terms. Reforms just approved after a long parliamentary struggle would downgrade the Senate to a status resembling that of the House of Lords and strengthen the powers of the Chamber of Deputies, thus, it is hoped, making Italian governing and law-making less sclerotic.

Constitutional referendums seem perfectly sensible. Popular referendums are the problem. There have been 17 of them since 1974, all of them promoted by people hoping to undo legislation that parliament has already approved. They would be difficult to imagine in Britain, where parliament is supposed to be sovereign. But in Italy there is hardly a law that is safe from being called into question. Getting a referendum organised is not easy. It requires a request from at least five of Italy’s 20 regional councils, or a petition signed by at least 500,000 registered voters, each signature verified by a court. Nevertheless, referendums have been held not only on moral issues such as divorce and abortion, which is understandable, but also on such matters as the management of water services, the right to place electricity pylons on private property, the system for appointing the heads of state banks, and so on.

Still, no referendum has attracted more criticism than the one last Sunday. This was about drilling for oil and gas within 12 miles of the Italian coast. Italy imports about 90 per cent of its energy needs, so is always looking for ways to increase its domestic production. But environmental lobbyists have already obtained major restrictions on this. The government, for example, isn’t granting any more drilling concessions in either the Mediterranean or the Aegean seas; all it wants to do is to renew existing licences so that drilling can continue at the present sites until the reserves are fully exhausted. The question in the referendum was simply whether the government should be allowed to do this.

This was a highly technical question on which it would have been surprising to find much interest among the Italian population. And, indeed, there wasn’t much. The prime minister, Matteo Renzi, claiming that failure to renew the licences would lose 11,000 Italians their jobs, urged voters to boycott the referendum. This was because the law states that no popular referendum is valid unless 50 per cent of the electorate plus one other voter turns out to cast their ballot. The turnout on Sunday was just over 30 per cent, so drilling can effectively continue.

It is unusual for a head of government to urge voters to abstain from voting in any poll; more often it’s the other way round. But Renzi heralded the low turnout as a victory for himself, as indeed it was to some extent because the referendum, called on the initiative of nine regional councils, was partly motivated by a desire to embarrass him. Renzi proposed a toast to the 11,000 workers he said would now keep their jobs and condemned the referendum, which cost €300 million to organise, as a complete waste of money.

Italians have traditionally always voted in large numbers, seeing it as their duty. There was a turnout of 87.7 per cent in the referendum of 1974 that resulted in the retention of divorce. In the referendum of 1981, in which the legalisation of abortion was upheld, the turnout was 79.4 per cent. Now, on the issue of drilling at sea, it has fallen to 30 per cent. This shows that if you ask people to answer a stupid question, most will refuse to do so. It also shows that too many referendums weaken people’s commitment to democracy instead of strengthening it.

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  • Nick Riggs

    Asking the people what they want in a referendum. The very idea! *Shudder* It sounds too much like democracy.

    • gunnerbear

      This democracy thing…..it’ll never catch on you know….eventually the people in charge will realise that if they are careful…they can take turns at being in charge and nothing really changes………

      • OmnipotentWizard

        “…nothing really changes………” Except we become wealthier, healthier and safer with each passing generation.

        • gunnerbear

          Fair comment but of course I was only commenting on the issue of political power.

          • OmnipotentWizard

            Wizard Rule 11: Safety, Food & S*x are the three main desires of any population. Any political system that can guarantee access to these will be a success.

            We have a political system that has delivered this and more and so the fact that “…nothing really changes…” is a good thing.

          • gunnerbear

            Brilliant. Top Notch! 🙂

          • OmnipotentWizard

            If you are interested I suggest you read this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

            My rule just puts into words the bottom layers of the pyramid.

          • wibbling

            And yet nowhere do you acknowledge that government – of any size – is the problem that undermines human beings.

          • OmnipotentWizard

            Did you not read where I said “We have a political system that has delivered this…” Who do you think put this in place?

            Just look at Venezuela, Cuba, etc if you want to see what difference our Government makes.

          • Leon Wolfeson

            The “problem” of the 99% not being utterly tramped by your rich. Hmm!

          • wibbling

            Yet… government does none of these things. Markets provide for them. Left alone, people do far better without any form of government.

          • OmnipotentWizard

            Incorrect. The Government makes the laws and provides the money for the police and army. It makes the laws that allow the markets to thrive in the UK.

            “Left alone, people do far better…” It was being left alone too much that allowed the banks to cause the financial crisis.

          • Leon Wolfeson

            Markets are precisely what your Capitalists oppose. “Left alone”, your rich can profiteer even more heavily from market-distortions like slavery.

        • wibbling

          Yet we’re not. Unemployment is growing, poverty endemic, we’re running out of housing. Safer? With the EU causing wars in the continent?

          You’re delusional.

          • OmnipotentWizard

            “Unemployment is growing,…” Big oops wibby.

            Unemployment has fallen by more than 100,000 to its lowest level in over seven years, new figures have shown….The employment rate has reached 73.7%, the highest since comparable records began in 1971. (Yahoo 11/11/2015)

            “…poverty endemic,…” Hardly. No one starves and no one freezes through lack of available help. Wages (in real terms) are twice what they were in 1977.

            “…we’re running out of housing….” As the number of people sleeping rough is tiny then that obviously isn’t true.

            “Safer?” Violent crime is at an all time low.

            “With the EU causing wars in the continent?” Where? How?

          • Leon Wolfeson

            So you blame the EU for Putin, claiming facts are delusional, as you note the unemployment far too low for you, the 99% having far too much and call for house demolitions, right.

  • davidofkent

    I think the problem in this case is that the companies wish to drill offshore into a dormant undersea volcano. That should be fun!

  • Chris Shiherlis

    Don’t be mad Alexander at the fact that the Italians have at least some skeleton of Democracy left. I can’t say that for England…

  • gillardgone

    I wonder if they have postal votes to.

    • OmnipotentWizard

      Innuendo Alert!!!

      (And the incorrect spelling of “to”)

      • wibbling

        Cretinous whelp.

        • OmnipotentWizard

          Wizard Rule 83: An Insult is the last refuge of the bigot.

  • OmnipotentWizard

    Our referendum has the single purpose of showing up a vocal minority that they are just that – a minority.

    • trobrianders

      A vocal minority which has succeeded in giving license to the silent majority to cast off leftist political correctness and vote like free Britons.

      • OmnipotentWizard

        This post is known by the technical term of “wishful thinking”.

        • wibbling

          If we do not leave the EU our economy will be ruined. How long do you think your sort will last then?

          It is ever the cycle. The Left rise up, millions die, the Right smash them. You’re on the losing side. You are wrong in everything you say and do.

          • OmnipotentWizard

            “If we do not leave the EU our economy will be ruined.”

            The Centre for Economic and Business Research would disagree with you.

            “BRITAIN is set to overtake Germany and have the biggest economy in Western Europe within two decades, experts have predicted. The annual report from the Centre for Economic and Business Research has forecast that the UK will surge up the world prosperity table for years to come. Apart from leaping ahead of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s homeland, Britain will also overtake Japan and have the fourth biggest economy in the world by the 2030s, the report said.” (Daily Express 25/12/2015)

          • Leon Wolfeson

            The ruin of the 99% having spending power, as you spew about “your sort”, and as you claim your beloved Reich smashed…oh. As you spew bigotry against those with any sort of different view, and as you preach your hate and violence…

      • Das Boot ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

        Only if they vote the right way.

    • KenT.

      Omnipotent – You are not that important (as a vocal minority). Brexit will win the day.

      • OmnipotentWizard

        I won a lot of money off UKIPpers are the General Election who thought they’d get eight of more MPs. I should win a lot more off them again at the referendum.

        • Adam

          The question that needs to be asked is: Were Britain not in the EU and a referendum were held on whether we should join, which side will win? I’m almost certain that the British people would overwhelmingly say NO to joining the EU.

          • OmnipotentWizard

            Why would we ask irrelevant questions?

          • wibbling

            Because you can – do you not question? You probably don’t. Jump on one leg. GO on, do it. No? Yet you don’t want to ask ‘stupid questions’. This means you have no say – now and in the future.

            You’ve just not thought it through – probably because you are a buffoon.

          • OmnipotentWizard

            Wizard Rule 64: A rude response is no substitute for a sound argument.

        • wibbling

          You’re a fan of communist dictatorships then? Whenever the EU changes a treaty we should be able to call a referendum. Otherwise it could introduce abusrd, damaging legislation like dancing around a fire to put it out or destroying our energy supplies through faux religious dogma based on lies.

          • OmnipotentWizard

            “You’re a fan of communist dictatorships then?” This is what is known as a “leading question” which is rather a childish debating technique.

            “…destroying our energy supplies through faux religious dogma based on lies.” This is what is know as presenting your opinions as if they are facts which is another childish debating technique.

          • Leon Wolfeson

            So you want to waste loads of time, as you talk about your views there.. because of course the 99% won’t have access to water etc. in your views.

  • maic

    While Alexander seems to see little value in referenda I maintain that many of us do. The writer follows the approach of other anti referendum writers by focusing on the apparently dumb decisions by some people in some countries but steers clear of discussing Switzerland where Direct Democracy has been in place for some time. Under certain conditions citizens can block proposed legislation and initiate binding referenda of their own.
    The last time I read the news Switzerland was not proving unstable or ungovernable – quite the reverse. The brutal truth is that we cannot trust politicians to properly represent the people – the Party Bosses and vested interests seem to win over every time. You just have to look at Europe to see a widening gap between the political class and the citizens out there who see changes in their countries they never wanted and never consented to.
    I say citizen referenda properly organized are a necessary counterpoint to deaf. heedless or incompetent politicians.

    • grutchyngfysch

      Switzerland demonstrates over and over again that when the people are given power over their own lives and entrusted with the responsibility to protect their own nation, they generally rise to the challenge with the level of public engagement and debate only growing stronger not crasser. Our system of elected celebrities seems increasingly to go the opposite way.

  • Jojje 3000

    Once-off referendums might split an electorate, one really should have a two-phase process.

  • Augustus

    Never mind a referendum on the extension of oil drilling off the Italian coast, another lesson from Italy is how hundreds of Italian immigrant sympathizers demonstrated violently at the Brenner Pass crossing on Sunday and clashed with hundreds of Austrian riot police, because Austria simply wants to implement new border controls at the country’s border with Italy.

    And yet another lesson from Italy is how the Mafia has earned itself far more from migrants than from drugs. Billions of euros have been made in the last decade by the Mafia network Mafia Capitale by criminals, officials, business people and even politicians in the transportation, reception and exploitation of migrants from places like Eritrea, Tunisia, Ghana and Nigeria. People like Massimo Carminati (a former member of a neo-fascist group and known as ‘the Pirate of Rome’) saw the crisis as a golden opportunity. He’s now on trial along with other corrupt politicians and public officials working with mob figures.

  • richard davis
  • wibbling

    Too many referendums – direct democracy – weakens people’s commitment to democracy? Are you really suggesting that giving people control over the state reduces their interest in it?

    We live in a dictatorship. We have no choice or control over what the oafs in Westminster waste our money on. The idea that parliament is sovereign applies to the queen, not the people. As it is, it is in control of the people – this is wrong. People should control their governments.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      Why did Thatcher and Atlee disagree with you?

      Your hate of British democracy is sad. British people *do* have a vote, if you don’t then…

    • “People should control their governments.” People do control their Government as shown by the fact that the minority that you support are unable to force the majority to do what you want.

  • Referendums exist to show a noisy minority exactly what they are – a minority.

  • enoch arden

    The Latin word Referendum has no plural form.

    • Toby


  • enoch arden

    There is no such thing as universally bad form of government, and there is no such thing as universally good form of government. Whether or not a country is governable is a property of the society. A society can be ungovernable with any form of government. The main point of a governable society is its capacity for self-regulation, on a local level. If it is lost, the society is dead and the country will perish.

    Toynbee has pointed out that the build up of the central bureaucracy represents a desperate attempt of the government to compensate for the loss of the society’s capacity for self-regulation. As the very fabric of the society disintegrates, the bureaucracy grows until it collapses under its own weight. As a perfect example of this process Toynbee considers the Roman Empire.

    The rapid growth of the US Federal bureaucracy observed within the last 100 years can be regarded as another example of a disintegrating society. It is of interest to remember that 100 years ago there were no Federal Police in the US. Compare it with the present monstrous construction of numerous central security agencies who aren’t able to coordinate their activity.

  • Minstrel Boy

    Back in 2008, the Irish held a referendum on the merits of The Lisbon Treaty. The government spent millions telling the electorate that if they did not accept the terms of the Treaty, then the EU would bankrupt Ireland. The Irish rejected this advice and voted not to accept the Treaty. So a few months later the government held another referendum and this time got the answer it wanted. an acceptance vote. Oddly though, by November 2008 it was clear that the Irish banks had over-invested in US junk bonds and were about to go bankrupt unless bailed out by government guarantees. Cue bankruptcies, mass unemployment and mass emigration.
    Referendums can have unexpected outcomes, especially when the government of the day decides to fiddle the outcome. Be careful what you wish for!

  • Give our God Immortal Praise

    After so many comments no one has mentioned moslems. Got to be a record.

  • rjbh

    It seem a good idea… Maybe we should have referendums to decide if we really want to wage war..that way Blair would not have to worry about being tried for War Crimes.

  • Ingmar Blessing

    Where does Italy have territories in the “Aegean seas” ?? Seems like it should be “Adriatic sea”..

  • John

    Referendums are a terrible excuse for a lack of representative democracy and are shot full of holes.

    Top Oxford Economist sums up the Brexit/Remain issue in under 2 minutes:


  • There is an excellent article on the democratic process here:

  • Terry

    Democraphobia – fear of democracy – rules at the Spectator! The obvious reason for the lack of turnout in the recent Italian referendum is that the democratic majority of the electorate knew that a 50% + turnout was required for the result to be deemed valid and decided to ‘vote’ by not voting. This simple truth has obviously passed Alexander Chancellor pass by without him noticing.

    Where does the Spectator pick ’em up?