Referendums in the United
CHAPTER 1: Introduction
1. In November 2009, the Committee began an inquiry
into "the role of referendums in the UK's constitutional
by which citizens are given the opportunity to express a view
on specific issues, have antecedents in the Middle Ages and earlier.
A.V. Dicey advocated referendums for Britain in 1890.
But in comparison with some other democracies,
the referendum has been little used in the United Kingdom.
2. Although there was prior experience, such
as the Scottish referendum on prohibition in 1920 (p 143),
and local polls in Wales on the Sunday opening of pubs during
the 1960s (Q 45, p 126), the modern history of referendums
in the UK begins in 1973. Box 1 shows the national and regional
referendums which have been held in the UK since, including the
first, and so far only, UK-wide referendum, conducted in 1975,
on whether "the United Kingdom should stay in the European
Community (the Common Market)".
3. The referendum was not used at national level
between 1979 and 1997. The Labour Party's 1997 election manifesto
contained commitments to referendums on: the adoption of the European
single currency; the adoption of a new electoral system for the
House of Commons; the establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament;
the establishment of a devolved Welsh Assembly; the establishment
of a Greater London Authority; and the establishment of Elected
4. A series of referendums followed. In September
1997, a three-to-one majority voted in favour of the establishment
of a Scottish Parliament, with a slightly smaller majority in
favour of the Parliament possessing tax-varying powers. One week
later, a small majority voted in favour of the establishment of
a Welsh Assembly. In May 1998, on a low turnout, the London electorate
voted in favour of the establishment of a Greater London Authority.
Three weeks later, a referendum was held in Northern Ireland and
in the Republic of Ireland on the Belfast Agreement (popularly
known as the Good Friday Agreement), which resulted in a majority
for the Agreement. The promised referendums on the electoral system
and the single European currency were not conducted.
5. In October 1998, the Fifth Report of the Committee
on Standards in Public Life, on The Funding of Political Parties
in the United Kingdom, was published. The Report made recommendations
for the regulation of elections in the UK, and for referendums.
The regulatory framework for referendums advocated by the Committee
was broadly reflected in the subsequent Political Parties, Elections
and Referendums Act (PPERA), which was passed in November 2000.
The Act established the Electoral Commission, which, in addition
to its regulatory responsibilities in relation to elections, was
established as the regulator of referendums held under the Act.
6. One referendum has since been held under the
Act. In November 2004, a referendum was held on whether to establish
an Elected Regional Assembly in the North East of England (alongside
referendums on the consequent reorganisation of local government
in County Durham and Northumberland), and nearly 80 per cent of
those voting voted against the proposal to establish the Assembly.
UK experience of national and regional
referendums since 1973
|Event, Location and Date
||"Yes" vote (per cent)
||"No" vote (per cent)
||Turnout (per cent)
|Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom?
Do you want Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom?
|Remain part of the United Kingdom: 98.9%
||Be joined with the Republic of Ireland: 1.1% (the poll was subject to a widespread boycott by the Nationalist community.)
||Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom.
|Membership of the European Community
|Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?
||64.0%||The UK remained in the European Community.
|Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect?
||63.6%||Devolution did not proceed as the threshold requirement that not less than 40 per cent of the total electorate had to vote "yes" for devolution was not metonly 32.8 per cent voted "yes".
|Do you want the provisions of the Wales Act 1978 to be put into effect?
||58.8%||Devolution did not proceed.
|I agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament or I do not agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament.
||Do not agree: 25.7%
||The Scottish Parliament was established.
|I agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers or I do not agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers.
||Do not agree: 36.55%
||The Scottish Parliament was given tax-raising powers.
|I agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly or I do not agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly.
||Do not agree: 49.7%
||The Welsh Assembly was established.
|Greater London Authority
|Are you in favour of the Government's proposals for a Greater London Authority, made up of an elected mayor and a separately elected assembly?
||34.0%||The Greater London Authority was established.
|Do you support the Agreement reached at the Multi-Party Talks in Northern Ireland and set out in Command Paper 3883?
||81.0%||Community consent for continuation of the Northern Ireland peace process on the basis of the Belfast Agreement was given.
|Elected Regional Assembly
North East of England
|Should there be an elected assembly for the North East region?
||47.1%||The Elected Regional Assembly for the North East was not established.
7. Local referendums have been held in recent
years, on the establishment of an elected mayor, council tax rates
and congestion charge proposals.
The current context
8. In February 2010, the Government tabled amendments
to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, proposing a
referendum before October 2011 on changing the electoral system
for the House of Commons to the "Alternative Vote" system.
The Conservative Party have stated that if they win the next General
Election they will introduce legislation requiring a referendum
on any future transfer of power to the EU. They have also stated
that they would hold local referendums, and to empower people
to instigate referendums on local issues.
The Liberal Democrats have made commitments to hold a referendum
before adopting the euro, before any change to the voting system,
and before adopting a written constitution (Q 19).
9. There are likely to be commitments to referendums
in the manifestos of the main parties for the forthcoming General
Election. In addition, the devolved administration in Wales are
committed to holding a referendum before May 2011 on further devolution
of powers to the Welsh Assembly (p 59). In February 2010
the devolved administration in Scotland published a draft bill
setting out proposals for a referendum on Scottish independence.
10. In addition, the perception of a decline
in the standing of the "traditional" democratic system,
in combination with technological developments, have led some
to argue that direct democracy should play a greater role in the
UK's experience. As Professor Bogdanor, Professor of Government,
Brasenose College, University of Oxford, argued, "people
are no longer prepared to accept a democracy where they vote once
every four or five years and then leave everything to their political
leaders" (Q 87).
11. In view of the commitments by political parties
to the use of referendums, the following questions need to be
- What are the advantages and disadvantages
- How do referendums accord with the UK's
system of representative democracy?
- When is it appropriate for referendums to
- Is it appropriate for constitutional issues
to be subject to a referendum?
- If referendums are used, what rules should
govern their use?
- Is the regulatory framework, as set out
in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000,
effective and appropriate?
- Does the Electoral Commission play an appropriate
role as part of this regulatory system?
12. We received oral evidence from 19 witnesses
over ten sessions, and received 24 written submissions. We also
invited the Conservative Party to submit evidence but they referred
us to their published statements on the use of referendums. Dr
John Parkinson, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University
of York, has acted as Specialist Adviser for the inquiry. We are
grateful for his assistance.
1 Witnesses used both "referendums" and "referenda"
as the plural form of "referendum". We have chosen to
use the form "referendums" throughout the report, except
where quoting directly from witnesses who use the term "referenda". Back
A.V. Dicey (1890) 'Ought the referendum to be introduced into
England?' Contemporary Review 57 (April). Back
See Appendix 3 and Q 1. Back
See Box 2 for more details. Back
Parallel referendums were held at the same time on the proposed
restructuring of local government. Back
See Rt Hon David Cameron MP speech, 26 May 2010: http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2009/05/David_Cameron_Fixing_Broken_Politics.aspx,
and speech, 4 November 2009: http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeches/2009/11/David_Cameron_A_Europe_policy_that_people_can_believe_in.aspx.
See also Robert Hazell, The Conservative Agenda for Constitutional
Reform, The Constitution Unit, University College London (London,
February 2010), Chapter 13. Back
See http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Government/Elections/rbc. Back