Framing the question – history’s lessons for winning and losing referenda

On Sunday, Greeks will go to the polls to vote in a crucial referendum. The politics are fraught, the media is frenzied and accusations and recriminations are already flying.

The ballot paper has attracted plenty of attention, both inside and outside of Greece. The question is detailed and, to eyes that are unaccustomed to non-Roman alphabets, impenetrable.


Some commentators have pointed out that the ‘no’ option is given first. It made me think about referenda ballots that have been decidedly imbalanced.  When with these, Greece’s ballot looks the model of democratic accountability.

1. Austrian referendum in 1938 on union with Germany

On 10 April 1938, Austrians went to the polls to decide the future of their country. At stake was whether Austria would join with Nazi Germany in a Greater German Empire.

Austria had emerged from the ruins of the Great War as a republic. The imperial heart of the Habsburg empire, Vienna, was now without both its monarchy and the bulk of its former territories and people.

The result was never really in doubt. Even so, the vote produced an eye-brow raising 99.73% support for the proposition. According to the official figures, only 11,929 people vote no (out of an electorate of 4,484,617). Did the ballot play a part?

Ballot used for Austrian referendum, 1938 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It certainly wasn’t a subtle ballot. It uses the unmistakably Teutonic font preferred by the Nazi regime. The circle for yes is twice the size as that for no. Yes is placed in the centre, under the large rendering of Adolf Hitler. No is placed, as a seeming after thought, off to the right.

It almost certainly had no material impact on the results. Still, it was crystal clear which option the authorities wanted you to pick.

2. Italian general election in 1934

General elections are usually different from referenda. The former ask you to choose between parties seeking to fill seats in the legislature and form a government. The latter ask the electorate’s opinion of a specific question.

In Italy, the two merged into a strange election to validate an entirely fascist parliament. Voters could either vote for or against the National Fascist Party’s list. They did so by folding a decidedly unsubtle ballot paper.

Fascist ballot paper, Legislatura XXIX, politic election, 25 marzo 1934, front side of the "Sì" (Yes) ballot paper. The "NO" ballot paper is similar but completely white (without the Italian flag colour), so the vote was not secret. You can read: "Do you agree with the list of deputies chosen by the Grand Council of Fascism?" By Oggetto di mia (Accurimbono) proprietà. (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On one side, the vivid green and red stripes of the Italian flag frame the large YES option. To vote yes, the card was simply folded with the colours showing. The other side was plain white, with just the text of the question and NO. To select this option, the voter folded the card to hide the flag.

This was highly symbolic and also had the impact of destroying the secret ballot. It was clear who was voting yes and who was voting no. This goes some way to explaining the official result of 99.84% in favour of the National Fascist Party.

3. Chilean national consultation in 1978

In 1978, the United Nations accused Chile of human rights violations. President Pinochet responded with a referendum to demonstrate the support he enjoyed in the country.

The question was decidedly leading:

“Given the international aggression against the government of our country, I support President Pinochet in his defense of the dignity of Chile, and I confirm again the legitimacy of the Government of the Republic in its sovereign head of the institutionalization process in the country.”

The ballot paper was even more so.

Chilean national consultation 1978 ballot paper See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vote yes, with the flag of Chile. Or vote no, with a black box further down the ballot paper.

4. Referendum on the future of the Soviet Union in 1991

By 1991, the Soviet Union was under considerable pressure from all sides. Pro-Soviet governments had collapsed across eastern Europe. More independent minded nationalities, such as Georgia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, were straining to secede from the Union.

The authorities decided that a popular vote would bolster the Union, and declared a referendum. It was held on 17 March 1991. The ballot paper was admirably neutral, with equal prominence given to both options.

Soviet Union referendum, ballot 1991 By USSR [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But the question was, at best, leading:

“Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?”

Many Soviet citizens did. The result was a landslide in favour, with 77.85% voting yes. This wasn’t enough to save the USSR. Just over nine months later, the USSR was dissolved.

Governing in style

You’ve won the election and soon you’ll be sworn in as the governor of the state. What is top of your list of priorities? Fulfilling manifesto pledges? Dishing out patronage? Dealing with the legislature? One thing most of America’s state governors don’t have to worry about is where to live. All bar three states in the USA have official governors’ residencies.

Alabama Governor's Mansion, Montgomery Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Governors of states in the USA have considerable political power. They are the chief executives of territories whose population or size dwarfs many sovereign countries. As befits the role, most states in the USA provide an official residence – a state by state version of the White House and centre of executive power.

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Dictatorial diatribes

Mein Kampf and the Little Red Book (or, to give it the proper title, Quotations from Chairman Mao) are two of the most famous examples of political tracts written by leaders of repressive regimes.  But they are not the only ones – Colonel Gadaffi made his ‘Green Book’ compulsory reading in Libya and Turkmenistan’s President Niyazov required all schools to take his book, the Ruhnama, as their primary text for teaching.

Few things reinforce a dictators sense of mission like writing a book. Between its hard, compulsorily revered covers, the dear leader can set out his beliefs, justifications and demands. It can become an almost sacred text to the followers of the personality cults that often accompany such writings. They also reveal some of the insanity at the heart of some of the world’s bloodiest or strangest regimes.

Copy of Mein Kampf as published during the Third Reich By Diagram Lajard (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia CommonsThe classic example is Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’, or My Struggle or Battle in English. Mein Kampf was written during Hitler’s incarceration at Landsberg Prison following the failure of the Munich Putsch in 1923. First published 1925, the book is infamous for giving the world sufficient warning and advance notice of his deadly ideology and warped world view.

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Executive privileges – palaces of power

Where do the world’s most powerful people live? In most countries, the head of state or leading politicians are given grace and favour residences that have become emblematic of their government. From the White House to Number 10 Downing Street, the Kremlin to Zhongnanhai, executive mansions are fascinating insights into the history and self-image of nations. Here are a few of my favourites. 

There are a huge number of perks that come with being President of the United States of America but perhaps the most prestigious is having 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500 as your home address. The White House, as the executive mansion of the United States is more usually known, is one of the world’s most iconic presidential pads.

South Portico of the White House at Christmas By Susan Sterner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the world of executive mansions, the White House’s famous façade is only rivaled by Number 10 Downing Street’s shiny black door. Both Number 10 and the White House are so famous that they’ve become metonyms, their names frequently employed as journalistic shorthand to refer to the executive branches of the UK and the USA respectively.

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Is the President of the United States really the King of America?

One of the greatest fears of radical revolutionaries in America was the threat of monarchy emerging out of the nascent republic. But, whilst clearly not establishing a monarchy in the traditional sense, America’s founding fathers were influenced by the stability of government in the European monarchies. Did they create a non-hereditary and elected King of America?

The crown of a new nation was really his for the taking. Had George Washington wanted to establish a new monarchy in the New World, it is likely he would have been able to overturn radical objection and tilt the framers of the constitution into adopting a very different document.

That said, how different would a more royal constitution really have been? As the Commander in Chief, head of state and head of the executive, the President of the United States had already accrued more powers than those held by the recently deposed George III. Whilst never getting close to the absolute monarch of continental Europe, newly free and ‘republican’ America had distinctly royal overtones to its adopted system of government.

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Mid-term blues, reds and yellows

The headlines in the UK press following local elections made grim reading for the Coalition leaders. The Guardian lead with “Election drubbing piles pressure on Cameron” and The Times stated that “Labour thrive on bad day for Tories”. The I on Saturday condemned the entire political class with the headline “Britain’s vote of no confidence”.

It certainly wasn’t a good night for the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats – they lost 403 and 330 councillors respectively. Labour finished the night up 824 councillors and with a strong (albeit still minority) position on the London Assembly. Only the re-election of Boris Johnson as the Mayor of London spared the Conservatives further embarrassment.

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A right turn for European politics?

The envelope landed on the floor with a distinct slap. Postmarked with a ‘London Elects’ logo, my wodge of election material for this year’s Mayoral and Assembly elections had arrived. London has taken the sensible and environmentally sound approach of consolidating candidate mailshots into a single pamphlet. Each of the seven candidates gets two sides to spell out their message and doorsteps throughout the capital are otherwise unsullied with political bumf.

I opened the envelope, letting the hefty leaflet drop out. It fell to the floor open on the page for the British National Party. But this wasn’t the bad old British National Party – this was new BNP – a heart shaped union flag logo, a softer san-serif font and fronted by Carlos Cortiglia, a Uruguayan immigrant. Will this image makeover result in a electoral success for the BNP in the capital? They have quite a way to go – in 2008 Richard Barnbrook took 2.84% of the London vote.

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MAD is a perfect acronym to describe one of the most terrifying concepts mankind has yet devised. It stands for Mutually Assured Destruction, and described the stark realisation of looming anhilation  and the tense balance of power that kept (and keeps) any nuclear power deploying their apocolyptic arsenal against enemies.

Although the nuclear arsenals amassed by the USA and USSR during the Cold War were sufficient to wipeout humanity, there was some safety in numbers. The reassuring flip side to the MAD doctrine was that the sheer destructive capability of nuclear weapons inhibited their use.

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>Do they like to be by the seaside?


Each September generations of political hacks, geeks and insiders have heard the siren call of the sea and headed to Britain’s seaside resort for the annual party conference. Accompanying them, and providing a welcome end of season bump to hotel and guest house owners, are tides of journalistic flotsam and corporate jetsam.

This tradition continued well into the 21st century, but the lure of the coast seems to be losing its automatic and magnetic pull. Labour was the first to break ranks, holding its 2006 conference in Manchester. It returned to the coast with Bournemouth in 2007, and then returned to Manchester in 2008. It was joined that year by the Conservatives, who held their conference in Birmingham and who have not returned to the seaside since. The last to make the break was the Liberal Democrats, who went to Liverpool in 2010. 

This year there are no seaside trips for the big three parties – the Conservative Party will be in Manchester, the Labour Party will visit Liverpool and the Liberal Democrats are currently meeting in Birmingham

Since 1945, two resorts have dominated the party conferences of Labour and the Conservatives (see graph below). Blackpool has chalked up 25 Labour conferences and 29 Conservative conferences. Brighton has hosted 21 Labour conferences and 13 Conservative conferences. There is then a big gap before Bournemouth, Scarborough, Margate and Morecambe (see list below).

Labour Party conferences since 1945

Blackpool 25
Bournemouth 3
Brighton 21
Liverpool 1
London 3
Manchester 3
Margate 4
Morcambe 1
Scarborough 8

Conservative Party conferences since 1945

Birmingham 2
Blackpool 29
Bournemouth 9
Brighton 13
Llandudno 2
London 2
Manchester 2
Margate 1
Scarborough 2