THE REFERENDUM. T HE Spectator has from the very beginning of
the Con- stitutional crisis pressed forward a policy which it has now advocated. for nearly twenty years,—the adoption of the Referendum, or poll of the people, as part of our Con- stitution. Hitherto considerable difficulty has been found in getting either our statesmen or the general public to listen to the proposal. It seems, however, as if circum- stances were now going to force the nation to consider the question in all its bearings. People are beginning to perceive that, however much it may be concealed by appear- ances, the real point at issue between the two political parties is as to where, in the very last resort, the sovereign power of the nation shall rest, whether solely in the repre- sentatives of the people gathered in the House of Commons, or in the people themselves by means of a direct veto over the acts of their representatives in cases of supreme Constitutional importance. As our readers know, we have very strongly advocated the use of the Referendum to solve deadlocks between the two Houses. In our opinion, it is essential that there should exist some power in the State capable of vetoing, if necessary, the acts of the House of Commons. Further, we hold that the best hands in which to place that necessary veto are those of the people themselves, for they alone can say the final word. The veto power once rested in the hands of the Sovereign. From his hands it passed away over two hundred. years ago. It next rested in the House of Lords through its right of con- current legislation. But that body in its present unre- formed state has ceased to be able to wield the veto, and some change is therefore necessary. Circumstances, however, though they may have shown that the House of Lords as at present organised is not capable of wield- ing the veto, have by no means shown that the veto in some shape or form is not a. necessary part of the Constitution. On the contrary, the need of some check on the arbitrary will of the House of Commons has been abundantly proved. The need of the Constitution is not the abolition of every form of effective control over the acts of the representatives of the people, but the placing of the veto power in stronger hands. That need. can be supplied (1) by the drastic reform of the House of Lords ; (2): by the creation of a new Second House on a democratic basis ; or (3) by lodging the veto power in the hands of the people themselves. The last, which we may note does not in any way preclude reform of the House of Lords, we hold to be the best solution of the problem.
In view of these circumstances, we desire to restate some of the arguments in favour of the Referendum. We cannot find a better way of doing so than by . drawing attention to an excellent little book just published entitled "Against the Referendum," by Miss Jane T. Stoddart, with an Introduction by Sir William Robertson Nicoll, the able editor of the British Weekly (Hodder and Stoughton, ls.) Though Sir W. Robertson Nicoll is known to be as fierce as he is a sincere and conscientious opponent of the Referendum, and though the avowed object of the book is to state the case against the Referendum, it is so fairly written that we have no hesitation in recommending it to our:readers. Indeed, it affords a series of conclusive arguments in favour of the Referendum. If this is all that can be said against the Referendum, the sooner it comes the better,' will, we believe, be the comment of many people who have hitherto imagined themselves opposed to its introduction. By specific refer- ences to the use of the Referendum in Switzerland and in America the book shows as follows :—(1) If a State adopts the Referendum, it is by no means obliged to have appeals to the people on every legislative Act. For example, such executive measures as annual Money Bills can be perfectly well excluded from its purview. (2) States are not bound. to use the Referendum even on ordinary legislation constantly. A. strictly limited use in practice is quite possible even when, as in Switzerland, a Referendum can theoretically be called for on every Act of the Legislature. As the Irishman said of the truth, so the Swiss can say of the Referendum : they have too much respect for it to drag it out on every paltry occasion. .(3) The Referendum need not be followed by the Initiative, as many opponents of the Referendum pretend in their efforts to depreciate the lodging of the veto power in the hands of the people. The Swiss have the Initiative in theory, but in practice it is hardly ever used. (4) All the bogies which are now being called up to frighten us from adopting the Referendum were put forward forty years ago with the object of preventing the Swiss from adopting it. Happily for them, they are a people not easily frightened, and they adopted the Referendum, with the best possible results in the interests of a steady and well-founded democracy. (5) The Referendum acts admirably as a safety-valve. The author of " Against the Referendum," for example. tells us that a learned Swiss authority on the Referendum remarked in a recent letter to her :—" The Referendum acts like the safety-valve in a steam engine. It provides an escape, free from all danger, for the dissatisfaction and discontent which accumulate in course of time, and it is a signpost indicating the real mood of the people." (-6) The Referendum is greatly used under the Constitutions of various States of the American Union, with the best possible results.
We should like to quote one or two of the authorities on the working of the Referendum in Switzerland which are very fairly set forth in this book. We are told that in the period which preceded its adoption able Swiss writers opposed the measure on the ground that it would destroy the independence of Parliament. " If the Referendum were introduced, Parliamentary Government might as well be ended. Parliament would. become a mere consulting Commission, and its responsibility would. disappear." " The majority of members is at present like a jury, which hears the discussions of the experts, and votes measures which seem useful for the people. But if the people are to become the judges of their own interests, that jury is useless." Yet none of these terrible things have happened. The Swiss Legislature has not lost its sense of respon- sibility or public respect, and no reasonable people in Switzerland now wish to get rid of the Referendum. It is rooted. in popular approval. Upon this point Miss Stoddart quotes the remarks of a Swiss journalist :— "From my personal experience I can tell you that nobody in Switzerland would dream of giving up the Referendum. The man insane enough to make the proposal would be stoned. The Refer- endum is undeniably conservative in its working. It acts as a brake on the legislative machine, and prevents its going too quickly ahead or doing too many things at a time."
Again, M. Curti, the author of a work on the Referendum, says :-
"The most absolute peace prevails over the whole country on voting day. The Referendum is therefore a very tranquil instru- ment for the arrangement of public affairs. A majestic calm is
associated with it The minority cannot revolt against the decisions thus confirmed. Roma loeuta est. The measures accepted by the Referendum, i.e. sanctioned by the majority of the people, have a greater vitality in the people's consciousness than the simple decrees of a representative Council. The progress accom- plished through the Referendum is an intellectual gain which can never be withdrawn."
This is not the place to discuss the Referendum in minute detail. Besides, our readers already know our views on the subject. We felt, however, that it was a duty as well as a pleasure to put up a signpost to this useful and fair- minded little book. We are content that its author should say that her book shows that the Swiss Referendum is a form of local revision which could never be imitated successfully in our country, when as a matter of fact it shows exactly the opposite. Her remark that " no other modern State shows the least inclination to adopt the Swiss Referendum" is not to the purpose. Most European States are governed by little oligarchies of representatives, and they, like other human beings, are very unwilling to divest themselves of the powers they possess unless forced to do so. We may note, however, that the Referendum has always appealed to the Teutonic nature. Tacitus in his " Germania," for example, puts our case for the Referendum with his usual magnificent brevity :—" On smaller matters the chief men deliberate ; on greater matters the whole people."
But though no European State except Switzerland has adopted the Referendum, that institution flourishes abundantly on the other side of the Atlantic. Nearly half the States of the American Union make an increasing use of it in some form or other. Only this week a correspondent in California sends us a set of proclamations and posters connected with a recent Referendum in that State on a series of Constitutional amendments which took place on the 8th of this month. And here we may remark incidentally that not only does this Californian example show the increasing use of the Referendum, but also how absurd it is to say that it is impossible to get the electors to vote on a com- plicated measure. They do it on an average two or three times a year in some part or other of the United States. One of the papers which our correspondent sends us is the official proclamation of the " Proposed Amendments to the Constitution of the State of California, with Legisla- tive Reasons for adoption thereof, and Propositions. to be voted upon at the General Election to be held on the eighth day of November, A.D. 1910, as certified to the county clerks of the several counties of the State of Cali- fornia, and to the Registrar of Voters of the City and County of San Francisco, by C. F. Curry, Secretary of State." This formidable document, which contains no less than ten columns of small and close print and is nearly two feet square, is what the British opponents of the Referendum would call "complicated beyond endurance." No doubt very few of the electors actually read such a document ; but that does not prevent their being able to vote on the amendments, which have been thoroughly discussed in the State Legislature and in the Press. The voters vote on the complicated measure just as they would vote on a complicated man. That is, some of them vote because their party takes one view, . others because they are assured by the political leaders in whom they have confidence that they ought to vote either for or against the amendments as the case may be, and others again because they have themselves made up their minds on general grounds that the amendments are good or bad,— just in the same way as here men make up their mind, even though they are not intimate with all the details, whether an Education Bill is a good Bill or a bad Bill, or whether they are for or against a single Chamber and leaving the House of Commons subject to no sort of veto or control. The " impossibility-of-voting-on-a-complicated- measure " argument is, in fact, one of those arguments which go too far and prove too much. Pursued to its logical conclusion, it would mean the depriving of every- body but a few specialists and political philosophers of the right to vote at all or to express any opinion at the polls. It is quite as easy to vote " Yes " or " No " as to whether an Act of Parliament shall or shall not come into opera- tion as to vote whether the Liberal Party programme shall or shall not be carried out.