Saddam HusseinBritain’s postwar Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, famously described the referendum as the device of demagogues and dictators, an “instrument of Nazism and fascism”. Fair enough, even though one assumes he was not closely acquainted with the less exciting Swiss. But what does that make the referendum with, as it were, a double 100 per cent outcome?

For that is what Saddam Hussein achieved on Tuesday in a plebiscite where all 11,445,638 Iraqis eligible to vote cast ballots, and they all gave him another seven-year term as president (even Enver Hoxha, the late Stalin of Albania, conceded that one voter cast a ballot against him in 1982).

Miraculous really. But not wholly surprising from a man who operates on the principle that he can walk on geopolitical water. Who has compared himself to Saladin and Nebuchadnezzar, and manufactured a lineage back to the prophet Mohammed. But who – increasingly prolific author of pop-epic fables that he is – has clearly never read Shelley’s Ozymandias.

But perhaps we should not sneer too much at Mr Hussein’s startling advance from his 99.96 per cent endorsement in the last referendum in 1995. In 1921, after all, the British colonial authorities rigged a referendum to impose King Feisal of the Hashemites on Iraqis, who promptly rose in revolt. The result was a mere 96 per cent, but technology has improved since then, stimulating despotic appetite.

Nor is Mr Hussein alone among Arab and Islamic leaders. In the past five years the masters of Egypt (94 per cent), Syria (97.3 per cent), Tunisia (99.5 per cent), Morocco (99.5 per cent) and Pakistan (98 per cent) have used referendums to make the miracle of unanimity quite ordinary. Is this merely the homage vice pays to virtue?

Well, the story of Latin America in the past century was a bit like that. Tyrants felt the need for some legitimising, democratic warmth from their people, however fake. But as time went on, they could not always control voting outcomes. The Uruguayan junta in 1980 and the Pinochet dictatorship in 1988 both unexpectedly lost referendums. Mexico’s eternally ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (which, Mr Hussein may care to note, got 110 per cent of voters to turn out in parts of southern Mexico in 1988) was voted out of office two years ago.

Although popular with despots from Napoleon to Mussolini, referendums can be risky. The late General Charles de Gaulle found this to his cost in 1969- he lost a plebiscite on constitutional reform after the 1968 upheaval, having announced he would resign if the proposals were rejected.
If only Mr Hussein would make the same mistake and unlock the subversive potential of the referendum.