Category Archives: Democracy and Participation

Are Referendums good for democracy in the UK?

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?

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Was the AV Referendum a good exercise in democracy?

AV vote will not break the Coalition, insists Cameron – Channel 4 News
The AV Referendum took place on the 5th May 2011.

In 2011 Britain’s second nationwide referendum. This was on the issue of whether to replace the First Past the Post voting system with the Alternative Vote system for General Elections. Many people have questioned the effectiveness of this referendum and whether it turned out to be a good democratic exercise.

Why did the referendum take place?

Nick Clegg was Lib Dem leader in 2010.
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What is Liberal Democracy?

Athenian Demo
A depiction of Athenian Democracy.

The term democracy comes from the Greek demokratia, literally meaning “rule by people”. The origins of democracy can be traced back to Ancient Athens. Athenian Democracy was direct in its nature. It had two key features that defined its fundamental operation:

  1. Officials were randomly selected from among the citizens.
  2. A legislature that was made up of all citizens.
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