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History of the Referendum

referendum-picture

It is fair to say that the result of the United Kingdom’s Referendum on continued membership of the European Union is one of the most controversial and fiercely debated topics in modern English Legal History. Rafts of previously silent Constitutional Lawyers have entered the arena to voice their opinions.

This ferocity has been an enduring theme surrounding Referendums since the earliest discussions regarding their introduction. The central pillar of controversy is that Referendums are arguably contrary to the concept of Parliamentary Sovereignty. This is the principle that Parliament, acting by its Members and Lords, can make or unmake any law whatsoever. Theoretically, if Parliament wants to pass an Act that mandates the slaughter of all blue-eyed boys, Parliament can do so. Practically this might present difficulties, but it is correct as a matter of English Constitutional Law.

The greatest advocate of Parliamentary Sovereignty was Constitutional theorist Albert Venn Dicey in 1885. Bizarrely, it was also Dicey who first advocated the introduction of Referendums in an 1890 article, a mere 5 years after the publication of his renowned text on Parliamentary Sovereignty. Dicey believed that Referendums could act as a direct democratic check against the corruption of elected parties. Dicey stated that the people could act as ‘Political Sovereign’.

Dicey wanted a Referendum on the subject of Irish Home Rule to try to defeat Ireland’s attempt to govern itself in the late 19th Century, but he was unsuccessful. In the early 1900s, Members of the Conservative party suggested using a Referendum every time the House of Commons and House of Lords disagreed on a Bill, but this was roundly rejected. Moreover, in 1903 Joseph Chamberlain unsuccessfully suggested a Referendum on the issue of tariff reform. This reform, fittingly, was to be a departure from free trade towards imposing custom duties on foreign imports.

The other main suggestion of this era (again rejected) was made by Winston Churchill in 1910 who recommended a Referendum as a means of answering the question of Women’s Suffrage.

Over the next several decades, the idea of Referendums became increasingly unpopular in England due to their use by dictators as a tool of oppression. By way of example, Hitler held a Referendum in 1934 to effectively give himself ultimate State power. Groups of people were escorted to polling stations by Nazi soldiers and then had to vote in public. Some ballot papers were pre-ticked ‘Yes’ and forgeries were so common in some regions of Germany that the number of votes cast was greater than the total number of people entitled to vote.

The next major suggestion was again made by Winston Churchill in 1945 to answer the question of whether his Second World War government coalition should continue until Japan had been defeated. In response, Clement Atlee described the concept of Referendums as ‘alien to all of our traditions’. In the decades after the Second World War, Referendums were barely mentioned; no issue seemed important enough to warrant a Referendum. Atlee’s sentiment was echoed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, however this did not dissuade Harold Wilson from promising and implementing the first ever UK nationwide Referendum in 1975.

The United Kingdom has only held 3 nationwide Referendums. The first was on 5 June 1975 to decide whether to continue as a member of the European Economic Community (now the European Union) (67.23% Yes), the second was on 5 May 2011 to decide whether to adopt the Alternative Vote system (67.9% No) and, finally, on 23 June 2016, whether to continue as a member of the European Union (51.89% No).

Over the years, there have been various regional Referendums, mostly concerning the devolution of powers to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales (notably the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 – 55.3% No).

Although nationwide Referendums were firmly rejected in the early 1900s, the argument against them was not as strong for more localised Referendums and these were carried out from 1913. For example, in 1913 local areas in Scotland held Referendums on whether to implement the prohibition of alcohol. Of particular interest is that from 1881 pubs in Wales legally had to be closed on Sundays. In 1961, local areas of Wales were permitted to have a Referendum on whether they wanted Sundays to be ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ and for further Referendums asking the same question to take place every 7 years. Sadly, the Welsh pub Referendums were abolished in 2003.

Finally, since 1972 the people of local Parish areas have been able to call for a local Referendum, called ‘Parish polls’, to answer questions on community issues. These tend to be on local planning concerns and rarely have a turnout of more than a few hundred voters.

It is clear that Referendums are not new to English Legal History but are not by any means entrenched as an English democratic principle. Indeed, a system to govern Referendums was only put in place in 2000. The Electoral Commission oversees the conduct of Referendums and consults on how understandable the phrasing of the proposed Referendum question is. The recent EU membership Referendum has been so divisive that, on hearing a challenge, the High Court has held that Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (relating to the withdrawal of a Member State from the EU) cannot be used in the UK without an affirmative vote in Parliament.

The UK Government has stated it will appeal this judgment and we will have to wait and see what the appeal decision will mean for the future of Referendums in English Legal History. One thing is certain, party leaders are going to think very carefully before including Referendum promises in their political Manifestos in the future.

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History of Capital Punishment

Hanging. The most popular method for the death penalty throughout English Legal History.

The legal history of capital punishment in the United Kingdom is an interesting one and ranges across many centuries from the extreme of having no crimes strictly punishable by death to a multitude and back to none. In early Norman times, the principles of the common law in relation to the punishment of crimes were very simple. If the crime was a misdemeanor (minor or petty offences) then the punishment was at the discretion of the justices of the court.

For felonies (serious offences) the criminal was put on the king’s mercy which usually involved the ordering of mutilation in the form of castration or blinding. This was seen as a mercy rather than imposing the ultimate punishment of death.

By the early 13th Century, a fixed penalty of death was imposed for almost all felonies. For treason, this was death by being hung, drawn and quartered and for other felonies, simply death by hanging. This fixed penalty was grossly inflexible and various methods were used to mitigate the sentence of death, until later reforms abolished it. These methods included Sanctuary (my post on which can be found here), Benefit of Clergy, Pardons and Jury Mitigation. Later blog posts will deal with the latter three topics.

This state of affairs continued for some time. The expertise of the legal profession was directed towards thinking of incredible ways to avoid the death penalty, rather than reform it. Still by 1688 there were 50 offences within statute law that carried a death sentence, this rose to 220 by the the late 18th Century. These offences were wide-ranging and even included ‘being in the company of gypsies for one month’. It is a testament to the above mentioned methods of avoidance that, between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were given but only 7,000 people were executed.

The legal reformer Sir Samuel Romilly KC, also responsible for calling for the abolition of slavery, succeeded in having the death penalty abolished from a mere two offences, namely pick-pocketing and stealing from bleaching grounds.

A year after Sir Romilly’s death in 1818, a Parliamentary select committee looking at the issue of the death penalty led to several statutes that slowly, and in a piecemeal fashion, abolished the death penalty from many offences.

By the 1860s, there were only several offences that still attracted the death penalty. These were murder, treason, piracy, and arson in naval dockyards. This remained the same until 1957 when difficult cases arose as regards capital punishment for murder. It led to the introduction of the Homicide Act 1957 which suspended the practice and the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 which abolished it entirely. Death as a punishment for Arson in naval dockyards was repealed by the Criminal Damage Act 1971.

Although beheading was removed as a potential punishment for treason in 1973, hanging remained until 1998 when the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 abolished some of the last remnants of capital punishment in the UK, with the abolition of the punishment for treason and piracy.

The last remnant of the death penalty in the UK (the punishment existed within military jurisdiction during wartime) was abolished by the coming into force of the Human Rights Act 1998. Since 2004, the UK has been signed up to the 13th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits the death penalty in any circumstances. It would be impossible for the UK to bring in laws to reinstate the death penalty unless they were to formally withdraw from the Convention.

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