As we prepare in Britain for our momentous referendum in June, Italy has just had one. It happened last Sunday while I was on holiday in Tuscany, and it was about as futile an exercise in democracy as there could be. Italy has lots of referendums. They come in two kinds. First, there is the constitutional referendum, which is used to approve any change to the constitution that has been passed twice by both houses of parliament. Then there is the popular referendum, which is held by popular demand to request the abolition of the other kinds of law that parliament has enacted.
Constitutional referendums are rare. Since the famous one of 1946, when Italians narrowly voted to abolish the monarchy and replace it with a republic, there have been only two, both of them in this century and both concerned with the devolution of powers to Italy’s 20 regions. But there is to be another one this October to approve changes to the country’s bicameral system of government, in which the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are now both elected and conduct legislative battles on equal terms. Reforms just approved after a long parliamentary struggle would downgrade the Senate to a status resembling that of the House of Lords and strengthen the powers of the Chamber of Deputies, thus, it is hoped, making Italian governing and law-making less sclerotic.
Constitutional referendums seem perfectly sensible. Popular referendums are the problem. There have been 17 of them since 1974, all of them promoted by people hoping to undo legislation that parliament has already approved. They would be difficult to imagine in Britain, where parliament is supposed to be sovereign. But in Italy there is hardly a law that is safe from being called into question.