Outline the case for and against the use of referenda.

Essay by lawrencedunhillCollege, UndergraduateB-, November 2003

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The concept of referenda has existed for hundreds of years, coming into official use towards the end of the 19th century. There is evidence that the 'poll of the people' was used by William the Conqueror and by the Vatican in medieval times to affirm leaderships. Tacitus in 'Germania' suggests that Principes should decide minor questions, but great matters should be decided by the people. This idea remains today, where in some countries it generally assumed that a referendum be held when there might be a change to the constitutional law. Before arguing for or against referenda, one must consider on what grounds the referendum is standing. Some countries have embraced the use of it while others have been more cautious, which reflects how they may suit the social dynamics of one state more than another. How much is to be considered by the public? In some cases it may simply be constitutional changes, others decide some 'ordinary' laws, while most countries do not hold referenda.

Also the question asked can vary, it could be a loose general question or a definite choice between two options. Central to all arguments are the circumstances in which the referendum is being held. It may be the only option if political parties have reached deadlock and the system can not produce a decision. In this essay I will attempt to discuss both sides of the argument in relevance to the theoretical stances and to specific cases, mainly the 1975 referendum in Britain over membership of the Common Market. Who is best equipped to decide issues of importance, the ordinary men who make up the majority or the representatives of the majority? Different situations and issues may offer differing answers and comparisons with countries such as Switzerland...