Last week brought two passionate and dramatic popular votes for independence, in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Catalonia, Spain. Everyone, even those who dismissed both votes as illegal and meaningless, called them “referendums.” But were they? In practice, the two terms—”referendum” and “plebiscite”—are hopelessly tangled. My young friend Joan (a male name in his country) has just voted Yes to the question “Should Catalonia become an independent republic?” He emails me: “I casted [sic] my ballot with watering eyes,” and a photo shows him smiling in order to hold back tears as he puts his vote in the box. This he calls a referendum. My late, far older friend Willy, who was a German schoolboy in 1921, got a French bayonet in his backside during a plebiscite. Germany and the resurrected Polish state were both claiming the coal and steel basin of Upper Silesia. Two bloody uprisings had solved nothing. So the Allied Powers at Versailles arranged a plebiscite, district by district, to determine the borders.
… In Ireland, a vote to accept a new Constitution is a plebiscite, but a vote to amend it (like next year’s vote to remove the Constitution’s anti-abortion clause) is a referendum. In Australia, a plebiscite is a non-binding consultation, designed to test public opinion on some question and gauge whether there is a majority for change. Australians are having a postal plebiscite at this moment on same-sex marriage. A referendum, by contrast, is a binding vote on a constitutional change.
But most of the world, these days, calls any decision by direct popular vote a referendum. Democratic nation-states dislike them, feeling that they confess a failure of representative democracy. France is one country that has tried to tame the referendum. At first, French republicans damned it as a tool of Bonapartism, since it was used by Napoleon III in the nineteenth century to bypass parliaments and base his dictatorship on “the people.” But later, republicans worked the measure into their curious rules for orderly regime change: first a revolution, then a provisional government to prepare elections for a constituent assembly to draw up a new Constitution; next comes a referendum to approve the Constitution; and then, finally, the first parliamentary elections of the new Republic.