Clement Attlee called referendums a device alien to our traditions.

Referendums are a direct vote by citizens on a political issue. They are an example of direct democracy and contrast with the representative democracy that usually dominates politics in liberal democracies. Referendums do not have a long history in the UK. In fact, until 1975 there had not been a single nationwide referendum on any political issue. In Britain, referendums had been associated with Nazi Germany, where Hitler had use plebiscites to confirm support for his policies such as making himself Fuhrer (1934) and Anschluss (1938). Many prominent figures in British Politics had openly spoken out about the potential use of referendums in the UK:

I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism – Clement Attlee

The late Lord Attlee was right when he said that the referendum was a device of dictators and demagogues – Margaret Thatcher

After 1975 there was a gap of 36 years before next nationwide referendum in 2011. However, referendums have become much more commonplace since with both national referendums and a number of very significant regional referendums. So why is this and what might the advantages and disadvantages of referendums be?

What are the different types of referendums?

There are fundamentally three different types of referendum:

An advisory referendum – This is a referendum which allows citizens to express their opinion, but it is not binding on the government – hence being called advisory. Technically, because of parliamentary sovereignty, all referendums in the UK are advisory. However, realistically most are politically binding. If a government were to offer the people to make a decision on an major issue and then ignore their verdict it would be politically suicidal.

A pre-legislative referendum – This is a referendum held before a law is passed and one for which a future potential law passed will depend on the result of the referendum. Good examples of this are the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 and the EU Referendum in 2016. In 2014, had the population of Scotland voted to leave the UK then primary legislation would have had to have been passed to enable this. In the case of the EU Referendum, significant amounts of legislation, both primary and secondary, has had to been passed since 2016. For example, the EU Withdrawal Act (2018) repealed the European Communities Act (1973).

Nick Clegg insisted in the AV Referendum in order to join the coalition.

A post-legislative referendum – This is a referendum held after a law is passed to confirm whether people are satisfied with it. A good example of a post-legislative referendum was the AV Referendum where a bill had been written and agreed and the referendum was the final stage in the process.

There is one further type of referendum that also needs recognition and that is unofficial referendums. These are referendums without a clear legal mandate and are often therefore very controversial. They are mainly designed to put pressure on a government who may themselves be refusing to offer a referendum. They have been most famously held in Hong Kong and in Catalonia. In 2014, the wantaway region of Spain, Catalonia, held an unofficial referendum after being refused formal permission by the Spanish Government for a binding referendum. The result of this referendum was 80.7% in favour of independence. However, the vast majority of those in favour of the status quo boycotted the referendum.

Sturgeon had a radical plan to create a def factor advisory referendum.

Interestingly, the SNP have recently threatened themselves to hold an unofficial referendum over Scottish Independence. In November 2022 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Scottish Parliament did not have the power to legislate itself for a second Scottish Independence Referendum. Whilst she was First Minister and leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon said that she planned to put forward a one-line manifesto in the next general election – simply saying the SNP are standing for independence. This would create a de facto advisory referendum in Scotland, although completely unofficially. Since becoming SNP leader Humza Yousaf has not carried on with this pledge.

What significant national and regional referendums have taken place in the UK?

There have been a number of referendums in the UK:

European Union Referendum2016NationalWhether Britain should remain or leave the EU51.9% of voters chose to leave the EU
Scottish Independence Referendum2014RegionalWhether Scotland should remain in the UK55.3% of voters chose to remain in the UK
Alternative Vote Referendum2011NationalWhether the Alternative Vote should replace First Past the Post for UK General Elections67.9% of voters chose to retain First Past the Post
Welsh Assembly Legislative Powers Referendum2011RegionalWhether the Welsh Assembly should be given more legislative powers63.5% of voters chose to increase the legislative powers of the Welsh Assembly
North East Assembly Referendum2004RegionalWhether the North-East of England should have its own devolved assembly77.9% of voters chose to reject the establishment of a North-East Assembly
Good Friday Agreement Referendum1998RegionalWhether the Good Friday agreement should be ratified71.1% of voters chose to ratify the Good Friday Agreement
Greater London Authority Referendum1998RegionalWhether devolution should be granted to Greater London72% of of voters chose to establish a devolved system for London
Welsh Devolution Referendum1997RegionalWhether devolution should be introduced to Wales50.3% of voters chose to devolve powers to Wales
Scottish Devolution Referendum1997RegionalWhether devolution should be introduced to Scotland74.3% of voters chose to devolve players to Scotland
Welsh Devolution Referendum1979RegionalWhether devolution should be introduced to Wales79.7% of voters chose to reject devolution to Wales
Scottish Devolution Referendum1979RegionalWhether devolution should be introduced to Scotland51.6% of voters chose to devolve powers to Scotland. However, a clause in the bill said that 40% of the whole electorate had to vote yes and only 32.8% did so
European Economic Community Referendum1975NationalWhether Britain should remain or leave the EEC67.2% of voters chose to remain in the EEC
Border Poll1973RegionalWhether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or should be part of the Republic of Ireland98.9% of voters chose to remain in the UK (the referendum was boycotted by nationalists). 

For what reasons might referendums be held?

There are a variety of reasons that a referendum might be held. Some of these include:

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern signed the Good Friday Agreement but then put it to a referendum, thereby directly confirming public consent.

To gain legitimacy for an important political or constitutional decision – When controversial political or constitutional decisions need to be made it is useful for representatives to get the direct consent of the electorate. This protects representatives in the future from some of the political comeback if the decision appears to be misguided. A good example of this is the Good Friday Referendum in 1998 which confirmed the history agreement made in Belfast and set out how devolution would work in Northern Ireland.

Between the Extremes my Nick Clegg covers a wide range of relevant topics.

To honour a political agreement – Sometimes holding a referendum may be agreed by political parties as part of another wider agreement being reached. A really good example of this is the Alternative Vote Referendum in 2011. The Liberal Democrats, who were long-time supporters of electoral reform, insisted on this as part of the Coalition Agreement. In fact, it is highly unlikely they would have signed the agreement without it. In his autobiography Nick Clegg says:

” First Past the Post is enshrined in the DNA of the Conservative Party not least because it has consistently delivered Conservative majority governments, even as their share of the popular vote has steadily declined. However, when it became obvious that we simply wouldn’t join a government at all without a commitment to a referendum on voting reform, their appetite for power outweighed (rightly, as it turned out) their fear of losing power “

Between the Extremes – Nick Clegg

To confirm a transfer of powers – Referendums will often be held to confirm a transfer of powers. This has happened a number of times, for example the Welsh Legislative Powers Referendum in 2011.

Howard Wilson held a referendum to confirm the decision taken by Edward Heath to join the EEC.

To confirm a decision taken by a previous Government – Sometimes a party will promise a referendum as a position of opposition to the current government. This happened in the Labour Government under Harold Wilson. The party promised a referendum on the decision of the Heath Government to join the EEC. This led to the EEC Referendum in 1975 in which 67.2% of voters chose to remain in the EEC.

To please their own political supporters – Sometimes a referendum may be held for party political reasons and in the interest of a particular party, rather than the nation as a whole. A good example of this may be the EU Referendum in 2016. It is important to note that David Cameron would say that he held the EU Referendum in order to settle a long-standing constitutional issue. In his autobiography he said:

“ I made the pledge (of holding a referendum) because I genuinely believed it was the right thing for Britain. It was right to try to get a better deal for us in Europe. It was right for us to have our say on that deal, and on our membership more broadly. It was right, if we got a better deal to remain in the EU. I believe this strategy was the most likely  way to keep Britain in the EU. Indeed, that’s how I put it to my fellow European leaders: this is my strategy for keeping Britain in Europe. The strategy failed. I failed…but it all flowed from an attempt to do the right thing”

For the Record – David Cameron
The fear of Nigel Farage and UKIP undoubtedly prompted the decision to hold the EU Referendum in 2016.

However, since the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 the Conservative Party had been deeply divided by the issue of the European Union. In the 2015 General Election UKIP won 12.6% of the votes, taking many votes away from the Conservatives. David Cameron undoubtedly promised (at least in part) to hold a referendum to ease the pressure on his party from the right and thereby win back UKIP members into the Conservative fold.

As a response to the seeming public mood – At times there may be circumstances in which there is a suggestion that the public mood on an issue deserves to be tested. A good example of this is the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014. In 2007 the SNP won the Scottish Election and did so again in 2011. The main policy of the SNP is a call for an independent Scotland. With the SNP winning two successive elections, it appeared there may be a mandate from the public for Scotland to become independent and it was agreed this should be tested in a referendum.

Under what process are referendums carried out?

In the UK holding a referendum has to be legislated for by the Westminster Parliament. Constitutional issues are a reserved, not devolved, power. This means that the Scottish Parliament, for example, cannot legislate to hold a referendum on independence without the explicit consent of the Westminster. Therefore, for an official referendum to be held, the Westminster Parliament have to agree to it. In reality, this almost always means that the Westminster Government will have to agree to it too.

Why is the wording of the question so important in a referendum?

A referendum provides the opportunity to vote on a single-issue. The issue realistically has to be broken into a binary question. This makes the wording of the question essential. In Britain there has been an independent electoral commission since 2001. They have a number of important roles in regard to referendums. These include:

  • Setting rules for campaigning in the referendum including relating to spending.
  • Appointing the official campaign groups for each side of the debate.
  • Encouraging people to register to vote.
  • Investigating any wrongdoing relating to the referendum.
  • Agreeing the wording of the question.

Before the 2016 EU Referendum the question David Cameron preferred was “should the UK remain a member of the EU?”. This would allow him to lead a ‘yes campaign’. Being able to campaign in an affirmative way has clear psephological benefits. However, after the intervention off the Electoral Commission the question was as below.

Similarly, before the Scottish Independence Referendum the question was changed from a ‘Yes/No’ question to the more neutral question of ‘Should Scotland be an independent question?’

The question in a referendum is therefore really important. In fact, research done by the Guardian Newspaper found a 4% difference in voting intention based on the alternative wording of the questions – a very significant swing!

What might be the strengths of referendums?

There are a number of potential strengths of holding referendums within the UK political system:

  1. Referendums provide a check on ‘elective dictatorship’
Lord Hailsham coined the term ‘Elective Dictatorship’.

It can be argued that referendums provide a check on the power of the government in the UK, something that is often referred to as the ‘elective dictatorship’. Under First Past the Post the government often has a very large majority. Indeed, the average majority since 1945 has been 58.4 seats. Holding referendums on key constitutional issues is a way to ensure an overpowering government cannot enforce its political will on the population. General Elections under FPTP do not always result in the true will of the public being expressed, whereas referendums clearly put power in the hands of the electorate. Constitutional Scholar Vernon Bogdanor argues that referendums can effectively create a ‘third chamber’ in the legislative process.

2. Referendums do a good job of raising public awareness of key issues

Unlike General Elections, referendums allow political parties and voters to focus entirely on a single issue. There can be widespread scrutiny of that issue and education surrounding it. For example, the Scottish Independent Referendum in 2014 allowed for a robust debate about that issue and was, in the words of then SNP Leader Alex Salmond “a once in a generation vote”. In this referendum 16-year-olds could vote. Schools helped with balanced political education over issue allowing them to be more informed.

3. Referendums allow for a single issue to be addressed on its own merits

General Elections can be confusing for voters. They have to weigh up a number of competing issues, all of which will be of differing levels of importance to different to voters. This makes it difficult to fully understand the clear mandate for a particular policy issue. Referendums allow for an individual issue to be addressed not as a broader part of party policies, but on the merits and drawbacks of it. This, therefore, gives the decision taken more legitimacy.

4. Referendums can settle long-standing and controversial issues

Referendums can settle long-standing and controversial issues once and for all. One of the benefits of them is they take issues out of the party-political arena and allow voters to consider them directly. As a result of the legitimacy that a direct vote bestows, they can have an enormous impact in settling controversial issues. A good example of this is the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles on Northern Ireland and set up the power-sharing agreement between nationalist and republican communities. This dramatic policy would not have had legitimacy if it was only agreed by politicians and not by citizens in Northern Ireland. In fact, the Government had already tried to use a Referendum in 1973 to settle the Irish issue but it was boycotted by Republicans as they did not feel the settlement it addressed their issues.

5. Referendums give an equal say to every voter

First Past the Post does not give equal voting power across the UK. Those votes cast in marginal seats have much weight than those in safe seats where a vote is very unlikely to make a difference. However, referendums counteract this problem. In a referendum the voice of every voter counts equally. This gives the final verdict a greater mandate than that received as the result of a General Election. In the 2015 General Election UKIP had won 3.8 million votes (12.6%) but had only secured one seat in Parliament. However, in the 2016 Referendum each of these eurosceptic votes counted equally.

What might be some of the weaknesses of referendums?

  1. Referendums can lead to emotionalised campaigns dominated by populism

Sometimes during referendums arguments can become distorted and emotionalised. They therefore become dominated by populism. Because referendums are often held on complex issues, it is easy for populism to take hold. The levels of populism were a key criticism of the EU referendum in 2016 where both sides were accused of poor campaigning and misuse of facts and figures.

The infamous bus of the Leave Campaign.
A famous claim by Chancellor George Osborne, part of what was labelled ‘Project Fear’.

2. Referendums have to reduce complex issues to simple questions

By necessity, referendums simplify incredibly complex issues. For example, British voters were given a choice in 2016 on whether to stay in or leave the European Union. However, there was little discussion on what leaving would mean and how Britain might leave the EU. In the view of many, the referendum created more political issues than it solved. This can perhaps be seen by the four years of political turmoil after the referendum surrounding how Britain should actually withdraw from the EU.

3. Referendums are held only at the discretion of the Government

It is entirely at the discretion of the government as to whether or not to hold a referendum. Therefore, it is not really the exercise in direct democracy. For example, the Westminster Government under Boris Johnson have pledged to prevent a Second Scottish Independence Referendum despite the widespread support for SNP. Governments often choose to hold referendums for their own political purposes, rather than the public good. For example, David Cameron called the 2016 Referendum to deal with the electoral threat of UKIP whilst Tony Blair did not call a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, despite indicating he would do so.

4. Referendums can undermine representative democracy

Alex Salmond called the Scottish Independence Referendum a ‘once in a generation vote’ but now the SNP are pushing for another.

Referendums can challenge parliamentary sovereignty and representative democracy. At elections, voters elected representatives to take difficult decisions on their behalf. This is because electors lack the expertise to vote on complicated issues like Brexit. The overuse of referendums can undermine the fabric of representative democracy. Once people have had a referendum on one issue, they begin to expect it for more issues – even if that issue is not well suited to be settled by a referendum. There is therefore a danger of ‘neverendums’.

5. Referendums can often be hijacked by other issues

There is a consistent danger that referendums, because of their binary nature, become dominated by wider political issues and not just the issue on the ballot paper. For example, in 2011, the AV Referendum largely became a referendum on performance of the Liberal Democrats in coalition, rather than a referendum on changes to the voting system itself.

5. Referendums give power to uneducated voters

Churchill famously quipped the best argument against democracy was ‘five minutes with the average voter’.

Politicians spend time becoming expert about political issues. However, referendums give control over often extremely complex moral and political issues to voters. Whilst this bestows democratic legitimacy, voters are often not well-equipped to make these decisions. Infamously, on the morning following the EU Referendum in 2016 the second most googled term in Britain was ‘What was the EU?’. (It should be noted that this fact should be treated some caution, and this is a worthwhile read on the issue – PolitiFact | What’s missing from media claims linking Google Trends to Brexit vote).

6. Tyranny of Majority

The Tyranny of the Majority refers to a situation in which the winning side can claim all of the authority. In most elections this does not happen (especially under a proportional system) however in a referendum there is one winning side and one losing side. This can mean large portions of the electorate feel dismissed. This can be seen in how Boris Johnson tried to approach Brexit upon becoming PM in July 2019 when he was willing (or at least appeared to be willing) to risk a No-Deal Brexit in the name of representing the 52% of the UK who voted to leave. It is worth noting that in terms of overall population that only 37% of the UK adult population actually voted for Brexit.

Why is the Brexit Referendum a good case study of some of the issues with Referendums?

For many people Brexit was a magnificent exercise in democracy in Britain. They would point to factors such as:

– At 72% it had significant turnout.

– It settled an issue that had been contentious for a generation.

– The decision being put to the people meant it was legitimised.

However, there are a number of arguments that can be made to suggest that Brexit was an unsatisfactory exercise in democracy in the UK:

  1. The question was over-simplified

There is a clear argument to be made that the question for the Brexit Referendum was simply not one that could be answered in a single referendum. Subsequent events showed that there was a wide dispersity of views on how Britain should leave the EU and what leaving even meant.

2. It was dominated by Populism

Brexit became incredibly emotionalised and was not a referendum in which facts seemed to mean for very much. This took place on both sides of the debate. On the Leave side, however, the EU became a handy scapegoat for a wide range of socio-economic issues with a number of causes.

3. It undermined representative democracy

Whilst 52% of voters opted to leave the EU in the referendum, around 60% of MPs wanted to remain. In total 406 constituencies voted Leave in the Brexit Referendum but only around 160 MPs had voted to leave. This led MPs into conflict with their own constituencies and having to deliver on a mandate they had been given that they didn’t agree with. Some did so, others could not. Famously, the MP for the leave voting Sedgefield, Phil Wilson said:

I was brought up in a coal mining community, the son of a miner. I know what happens when an industry closes – the unemployment, the poverty, the loss of hope, the years it takes to get back on your feet, the grievances that still play out today. Thousands of jobs are at stake in the North-East. If Brexit goes ahead, grievances in communities will worsen, so I say to Labour colleagues: we did not get elected to make our constituents poorer and you know that’s what Brexit will do. Brexit is now a moral issue, and the next few weeks will test our moral resolve. We cannot let something we know will harm our constituents go ahead. Now is the time for leadership, not followship. Now is the time for a people’s vote on the final deal.”

Subsequently, when Brexit was not immediately forthcoming, led to allegations that Parliament had betrayed the people. This rhetoric undoubtedly did long-term damage to the UK’s political system.

4. People did not know enough

It is clear that when voting the UK population was not well-educated on Brexit. Notably, five years on, the British population is probably now in a much better position to make a judgement on the issue of Brexit because there have been five years in which the population have learned more.

5. Referendums are limited if the potential outcomes are not prepared for

A successful referendum is incumbent on the ability to deliver on either of its potential outcomes and the EU Referendum in 2016 did not fulfil this criterion. Much of the blame for this can be placed on the government of David Cameron that did very little contingency planning for a leave vote. There was a political imperative for this as if the Government had planned for a leave vote it would have been portrayed that they did not think they could win. Conversely, in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum the SNP at least published a White paper to show there were some plans for a potential exit. The chaos seen after the Brexit Referendum result can in part be attributed to the failure to adequately plan for both potential scenarios.

Article Summary

Referendums have traditionally been a rarity in the UK. However, since 2011 there have been three nationwide referendums. Whilst they are an example of direct democracy and put power in the hands of voters, there are a number of arguments to suggest that their operation should be limited and that they do more harm than good to British politics.

Key Terms

Referendum – A general vote by the population on a single issue. The Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 and the Brexit Referendum of 2016 are examples of this.

Plebiscite – A plebiscite is an advisory referendum.

Direct Democracy – Democracy in which power over decision making is but directly in the hands of citizens.

Representative Democracy – Democracy in which power over decision making is given to elected representatives.

Advisory Referendum – A referendum in which the result is not legally binding.

Primary Legislation – Legislation passed having gone through the different stages in Parliament.

Secondary Legislation – Legislation that is delegated to Ministers or another body.

EU Withdrawal Act (2018) -Also known as the ‘Great Repeal Act’ this repealed the European Communities Act (1972).

European Communities Act (1972) -The Act of Parliament that saw Britain join the EEC in 1973.

Unofficial Referendum – A referendum that has no legal basis.

Elective Dictatorship – A term coined by Lord Hailsham to describe the situation in Britain in which when a government is elected, they can normally govern without much effective scrutiny.

Reserved Power – Powers that are kept by the Westminster Government and not devolved, for example Defence.

Devolved Power – A matter devolved for decision-making by a regional assembly.

Psephology – The study of the statistics and probabilities surrounding elections.

Tyranny of the Majority – A situation in which power over a decision is given solely to the group in the majority.

Specification Links:
Edexcel: Paper 1 – 3.2 (Referendums and how they are used)
AQA: Paper 1 – (Elections and Referendums)
WJEC: Paper 2 – 2.2 (Participation through elections and voting)

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