How Referendums Like the Brexit Vote Became a Thing

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tags: Brexit



To find the origins of the referendum—the practice of putting questions (rather than candidates) to popular vote, which made news this week when Britain voted to leave the European Union—you have to go way back.

“There was a Roman historian called Tacitus who wrote that on the small matters the governors decide, on important matters the people do,” says Matt Qvortrup, a professor of applied political science and international relations at Coventry University, and the editor of Referendums Around the World, a study of more the 200 years of referendums. “If you want to say like Monty Python, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?‘—they actually came up with the referendum, which means to refer a thing.”

But, says Qvotrup, that’s “the nice way of looking at it.” If you “fast-forward 2,000 years” the story of the referendum starts to look a little less noble than all that.





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