Left to the Will of the People
David Cameron’s and Matteo Renzi’s (Unworthy) Gambles
Ben Abeles, firstname.lastname@example.org
I n few countries are referendums as widely used as in Italy, where, on December 4th, droves of voters decidedly denied former Prime Minister Renzi’s proposed constitutional reforms. The result proved disastrous for Renzi’s political career, who, as promised, resigned shortly after the ‘no’ vote triumphed over his ‘yes.’ In what turned out to be a striking analogue to Brexit, Renzi, like Cameron, chose to gamble, putting everything on the line by allowing the people to have the final say. In hindsight, and against the backdrop of growing populist movements such as UKIP in the United Kingdom and the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy, it stands to reason that both Cameron and Renzi should have chosen safer routes in implementing the changes the two former prime ministers had wanted. Instead, both Cameron and Renzi lost in dramatic fashion and had no other choice but to step down. Although the consequences of these referendums have yet to be fully realized, the expectation is that the results will be detrimental to both the U.K. and Italy. This paper will examine why these referendums occurred in the first place, focusing on the pressures that could force a head of state to jeopardize his position by calling a referendum.
One common argument against the usage of referendums is that a controlling government would only call a referendum when it expects to win. Therefore, a referendum would only be used as a stamp of public approval, rather than as a popular check on that controlling government and its legislature. A passage by Matt Qvortrup in A comparative study of referendums (2005) neatly summarizes these concerns — and the frequency they arise: [According] to Butler and Ranney: ‘Referendums are held infrequently, usually only when the government thinks that they are likely to provide a useful ad hoc solution to a particular constitutional or political problem or to set the seal of legitimacy on a change of regime.’ This conclusion indicates that the referendum is unlikely to provide citizens with a constitutional safeguard. As Lijphart has concluded, ‘when governments control the referendum, they will tend to use it only when they expect to win.’  Following this logic, if a controlling party would use a referendum as an “ad hoc solution” or when it “expect[s] to win,”  a controlling party would not use a referendum when there exists a risk of losing the vote (i.e. the party being ‘checked’ by the people), or when a loss would prove catastrophic to that party or its leadership.
It is perhaps for this very reason that Brexit and the failure of Renzi’s reforms have caused such a shock. Where Cameron and Renzi had said “yes,” the people said “no;” it was a decision to call a referendum that in the end provided the British and Italian people with the ultimate check against Cameron’s and Renzi’s platforms, their parties and their offices. If there were a possibility that these referenda could prove the end for Cameron and Renzi — as they did — why then would they have taken the risk of allowing for the referenda in the first place? And if Cameron and Renzi did have reasonable expectations of victory, the issues on the ballots — EU membership in the United Kingdom and sweeping constitutional and electoral reforms in Italy — do not seem like the topics or policies with which one would gamble via referendum, at least according to prevailing notions on their usage. Testing the theory that a referendum will not serve as a popular check on a governing party, Brexit and the Italian constitutional referendum present two powerful counterpoints.
While referenda are often called in Italy, the opposite holds true in the United Kingdom, where the is no provision for their use. However, an explanation for the emergence of the United Kingdom’s EU referendum comes from intra-party politics. Experts on referenda have, at least since the 1970s, observed that the emergence of factions within a ruling party over a divisive issue often lead that party’s leadership to call a referendum, deferring the decision-making to the electorate, and thereby quelling damaging intra-party debate. In 1982, Norwegian political scientist Tor Bjørklund advanced a theory on what he deemed a “mediating” referendum: If a party is split internally, and this split is known to the public, and if the issue over which the party is divided is salient, a party will call a referendum on the issue in order to mediate its infighting.  One sees that the United Kingdom’s EU Referendum meets these conditions: David Cameron’s Conservative party began to fracture as early as the summer of 2012 when 100 Tory MPs signed a letter calling for an EU Referendum ; the split was publicly known as it was widely reported; and, furthermore, continued to intensify as UKIP gained ground campaigning on the issue. As Cameron was continuously pressured and felt the need to satisfy the right contingent of his party to prevent betrayal to UKIP, he had no other choice but to call the EU referendum, no matter how disastrous its results could be.
Turning to Renzi, however, there is no such clear-cut answer on why he called his referendum on constitutional reform. The easiest explanation is that because his reforms passed through the both the upper and lower houses of the senate, but without the qualified majority, the constitution provided for the referendum to be the final step in instituting the reform. Yet, as Renzi witnessed the beginning of the Brexit debacle in June, one wonders if Cameron’s mistakes forced Renzi to consider backing out of his promised referendum.
And, considering the fact that the date of the referendum — December 4th — had not been decided until the last week of September 2016, a full three months after the Brexit vote, the decision to hold a referendum whose result could be so consequential becomes even more puzzling. Within Renzi’s party there was no publicly known infighting over the issue, and although the Eurosceptic M5S has grown, taking both Rome and Turin in the June 2016 mayoral elections, it by no means has proven to be as significant a threat to the current political establishment as UKIP. MS5 continues to be lambasted as a directionless populist movement, rather than a political party. One possible explanation may therefore be the unbridled hubris that Renzi had demonstrated since he unexpectedly seized the premiership in February of 2014. He repeatedly referred to himself as a wrecking ball, vowing to rid Italy of the political culture that he claimed fettered all progress. However, as his ambitious Jobs Act — curiously titled in English — gave way to a precarious economy and as Brexit demonstrated the danger of deferring decision-making to popular will, Renzi did not back away from the referendum in interviews airing just days before the vote, reiterating his promise to step down should he lose. In the end, Renzi was a martyr for constitutional reform rather than its champion. Perhaps the result would have differed had he not chosen to rely on the referendum.
While we can point to specific referendum theories to understand the occurrence of the UK’s EU Referendum, such a theoretical model explaining Renzi’s referendum remains elusive. However, both Cameron and Renzi did enter into their referenda campaigns with a bold, although ultimately unfounded, confidence that their will would be echoed by their electorate. Prior to these referenda, political scientists had theorized that referenda are called when a controlling party can expect victory. Such an argument assumes that a government will call a referendum if and if only if the people already agree with the controlling party. Perhaps the confidence demonstrated by Cameron and Renzi was a product of conflated logic. It seems that Cameron and Renzi incorrectly assumed that if a government calls a referendum, the people will come to agree with the controlling party. This subtle distinction can help explain why Cameron and Renzi would have placed such high stakes on their referenda, and why each decided that the gamble was worth making in the first place.
1. Matt Qvortrup, A comparative study of referendums: Government by the people. (2nd ed.) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 90.
3. Björklund, Tor. “The Demand for Referendum: When Does It Arise and When Does It Succeed?” Scandinavian Political Studies 5, no. 3 (1982): 248, 257.
4. Andrew Sparrow, “PM accused of weak stance on Europe referendum,” Guardian, July 1, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/jul/01/david-cameron-europe-referendum-noncommittal.