Referendums Revised

Revised Document on Referendums

 UK Referendum Results

 BBC short history of UK Referendums

 BBC Analysis on Referendums

BBC Analysis of AV Referendum

BBC coverage of Referendum on Scottish Independence

BBC coverage of Timeline for European Union Referendums

Nick Robinson on European Referendums         and here is a more recent Nick Robinson article

 BBC Coverage of UK EU Referendum

More Detailed Information


 Video Lecture by Peter Kellner on “The Second Superpower:  the Role of Public Opinion in the C21st. The Lecture contains interesting comments on Referendums

Some further background to this lecture is provided in Peter Kellner’s YouGov booklet entitled “Democracy on Trial”.  Peter Kellner’s lecture is both detailed and wide ranging and I believe that teacher[From the Constitution Unit in the Department of Political Science  at University College London….scroll down until you reach the video link!]

House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution Report 2009-10: Referendums in the UK 

Video Lecture by Vernon Bogdanor [  From the Constitution Unit in the Department of Political Science  at University College London….scroll down until you reach the video link!] Information on the UK EU Referendum


Basic  Information on the UK EU Referendum

BBC Coverage of UK EU Referendum


Parliamentary Briefs on the result and future implications of the UK EU Referendum


The Basic Result

The UK voted by 52% to 48% to leave the EU.

England and Wales both voted in favour of leave. Scotland, N .Ireland and Gibraltar voted to remain

Green voters, SNP voters and Labour voters were more likely to vote remain than to leave. Conservative voters and UKIP voters were more likely to vote leave than to vote remain.

Young voters were far more likely than older voters to vote remain and vice versa.

University educated voters and voters educated to A level standard were more likely to vote Remain than were voters with fewer qualifications. This could to some extent be age related because far fewer older people had had the chance to pursue their education beyond 15-16

There were significant regional differences in voting behaviour. London was pro-remain but parts of the South East and the North were especially likely to vote leave.



The Leave Campaign

1.The Leave Campaign argued that as presently organised the EU is undemocratic and that membership of the EU undermines UK sovereignty and restricts UK control over laws made in the EU which affect the organisation of UK society.

2. They emphasised that in principle £350 million per week could be recouped from the EU and that these funds could be spend on other services within the UK such as the NHS.

3.They claimed that if the UK left the EU it would be possible to exercise greater control over immigration into the UK. There was a danger that if we remain in the EU a large number of Turks might migrate to the UK if and when Turkey should join the EU which might be possible fairly soon

4. High levels of immigration had allegedly put additional pressures on delivery of services such as housing, health and education and had depressed the earnings of low paid workers.

5. The Leave  Campaign argued that although the Remain Campaign had claimed that the EU would damage the UK economy such claims amounted to “Project Fear” which understated the ability of the UK to thrive economically outside of the EU.

6. The Leave Campaign argued also that insofar as experts from organisations such as the IFS and the LSE supported Remain arguments on the economy such experts could in reality and it was better to rely upon the commonsense of the UK people.

7. Leftist supporters of Leave argued that it would be impossible to introduce meaningful socialist or social democratic reforms within the EU as currently organised.



The Remain Campaign

1.The Remain stressed that there would be economic advantages for the UK in remaining in the EU and significant economic costs of leaving.

2. The Remain Campaign argued that the existence of the EU had helped to maintain peace in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

3. The Remain Campaign argued that the EU has protected workers’ rights effectively and introduced important pan-European regulations that otherwise would not have been introduced.

4. Arguments of the Leave Campaign were rejected.

5.   It was argued that membership of the EU results in the pooling of sovereignty rather than the loss of national sovereignty

6. It was pointed out that Turkey would not join the EU for the foreseeable future not least because all current Individual EU member statess have a veto on the membership of new states

7. It was argued that it would ultimately be possible to control immigration and that in any case immigration had positive benefits. Immigrants contribute more in taxation than they take in benefits and it is also denied that immigration is a significant cause of income inequality.


Click here for a page of links to information on the UK EU Referendum


Referendums may be defined as ballots [either national, regional or local] in which citizens are asked to vote either in favour or against a specific political proposal usually framed in terms of one specific question requiring a ”Yes” or “No” answer. Referendums are organised by governments but in some USA states referendums can be called for by the citizens themselves and these are known as “Initiatives”. The principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty in the UK means that referendums cannot be binding although it would be very difficult for governments to ignore the results of official referendums. Several important arguments have been raised in support of the increased use of referendums.

It is argued that although full direct democracy may be impractical and inefficient in modern, large scale, complex societies the use of referendums is an important mechanism for the provision of some direct democracy which can increase citizens’ active participation in and understanding of political questions.

It has been pointed that many UK citizens have a pessimistic view of UK parliamentary institutions and of individual MPs believing that MPs fail to reflect the views of voters and that they are likely, for a variety of reasons, to operate as so-called lobby fodder simply voting in accordance with the party line. Furthermore the recent MPs expenses scandal may have further eroded public confidence in MPs.

 Once a referendum campaign is underway citizens may be encouraged to take more interest in political issues which they might otherwise have ignored and it can be noted that the increased availability of computer technology greatly facilitates the practical organisation of referendums.

Contrastingly it is said that when citizens vote in General elections they are merely signalling their general support for a political party without committing themselves to specific party policies  so that theses General elections do not provide governments with a mandate to introduce specific party policies. However referendums provide governments with a much clearer mandate because they provide a clear indication of citizens’ views on particular issues.

Following a “Yes” vote governments can claim to be introducing a policy which has the consent of the governed while a “No” vote can prevent the government from introducing policies which are actually unpopular as was the case when N.E. citizens decisively against an elected assembly for the North East and the Labour Government responded by scrapping further planned referendums in the North West and Yorkshire. In general referendums are said to enhance the legitimacy and acceptability of government policy since the policy follows a full discussion of the issues in a referendum campaign and citizens are more likely to respect and conform to decisions which they have made themselves.

UK referendums have in practice always been used in attempts to resolve constitutional issues. Supporters argue that it is in accordance with democratic principles that citizens should have a right to express an opinion on any proposal to change the constitutional rules according to which they are to be governed while governments themselves may use the referendum result to emphasise the public acceptability of policies which they wish to introduce in order to resolve difficult political problems. This was certainly the case in relation to the 1998 referendum in Northern Ireland which led to the setting up of a new Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive in Stormont.

Supporters further claim that once the results of a referendum on a constitutional issue are implemented it is unlikely that subsequent governments will reverse the policy so that referendums are seen as providing some necessary long term political stability. For example it is conceivable that a Conservative government could be elected which opposed Scottish and Welsh devolution but such a government would be unlikely to abolish the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly given the results of the 1997 devolution referenda.

Referendums may sometimes be helpful to political parties when they themselves are divided on a particular issue. For example in 1975 both the Labour government and the Conservative opposition were disunited over continued UK membership of the then EEC. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson opted for a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the then EEC as a means of resolving the dispute over Europe which seriously divided his own party. Once the voters decided 2:1 in favour of continued EEC membership Labour opponents of continued EEC membership were much weakened. Wilson did, however, attract considerable criticism of this opportunistic rather than principled use of the referendum.

Opponents have also raised powerful arguments against the use of referendums. They argue that the use of referendums undermines the role of parliamentary representatives [i.e. MPs] by preventing them from using their independent judgement to represent the interests of their constituents. M.Ps independent judgement  is seen as especially important when complex technical issues are involved as in the decision whether or not to remain in the EEC/EU or to join the Single European Currency [Euro] or to ratify the current new European Treaty/Constitution.

Referendum campaigns are open to the criticisms that the referendum result could be influenced by the timing of the campaign which will be determined by the government itself and by the precise wording of the referendum question although this is now unlikely in the UK because the wording must be agreed with the independent Electoral Commission. However the issue of timing suggests that more thought should be given to the development of clear procedures for the triggering of referenda.

Different sides of the campaign may attract different levels of financial and mass media support so that both sides of the argument are unequally represented and there are also dangers that certain sections of the mass media may seek to simplify complex issues unduly and to persuade voters with misleading emotive phrases. [It is certainly true that in 1975 the Pro EEC membership campaign was far better funded than the Anti-EEC campaign.

It is possible that government support for one side rather than the other in a referendum campaign may unduly affect the outcome of the result because voters may cast their vote more as an assessment of overall government popularity and performance than as a verdict on the specific referendum issue. One wonders for example whether Tony Blair could have persuaded the electorate to support membership of the Euro in 1997 when he was still exceptionally powerful. He certainly could not have done so in the summer of 2007.

Critics claim that the increased use of referendums could undermine support for existing representative institutions in that once individuals are given the opportunity to take decisions on their own behalf they may be less willing to rely upon their representatives. This could lead to increased demands for referendums on a whole range of complex moral questions which are currently decided inside parliament. Furthermore it is pointed out that although votes in parliament are usually won by the governing party, government ministers can also protect minority interests at least to some extent whereas the increased use of binding referendums on issues such as abortion or euthanasia could indeed increase the danger of the tyranny of the majority.

It may be recognised that public trust in UK political institutions may well have been eroded but critics of referendums argue that public trust can best be rebuilt via increases in the efficiency and accountability of existing political institutions which will then persuade voters that good government can best be achieved by allowing MPs to exercise their traditional representative function. [However supporters of referendums would argue instead that over-mighty governments do little to protect the interests of minorities and even in some cases of majorities. They might ask for example whether the poll tax would have been introduced or whether the UK would have gone to war in Iraq if referenda were necessary before such policies could be introduced.]

In his lecture on referendums [see above link] Peter Kellner opposes them on the grounds that public opinion polls indicate that voters support a range of opinions which liberals regard as illiberal: for example voters would support the return of capital punishment and strict control of immigration. Here the issue is raised whether illiberal policies should nevertheless be introduced if there is majority support for them in a referendum or whether we should rely on our representatives to introduce more liberal policies.

 Peter Kellner wonders also what should happen if a government introduces policies supported in a referendum if these policies are then shown to be inefficient. He quotes the example of the Californian Government which implemented the result of a referendum in favour of reduced business taxes  which has had the long term effect of undermining the State’s finances and restricting State spending on health and education system. Similarly he argues that the acceptance by Manchester Council of a referendum result against the introduction of a congestion tax has contributed greatly to traffic congestion in central Manchester Should such policies be reversed and is a referendum necessary to do so? He also speculates that if a London referendum would have rejected the introduction of the congestion charge but that Londoners now recognise that the congestion charge is net beneficial and would retain it if a referendum was offered on the issue.

We may conclude that the use of referenda in the UK has contributed favourably to the growth of UK democracy but that the dangers of referenda may suggest that they should be used sparingly. It is essential that mechanisms must be found to increase the effectiveness, accountability and legitimacy of UK political institutions so that citizens have much greater confidence in the abilities and desires of representatives to represent citizens’ interests more effectively. This in itself would be likely to reduce the demand for referendums in circumstances where they are undesirable.