Referendums in the United Kingdom - Constitution Committee Contents

Referendums in the United Kingdom

CHAPTER 1: Introduction


1.  In November 2009, the Committee began an inquiry into "the role of referendums in the UK's constitutional experience".[1] Referendums, 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.[2] But in comparison with some other democracies,[3] 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 Regional Assemblies.

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.[4]

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 Referendum Question "Yes" vote (per cent) "No" vote (per cent) Turnout (per cent) Result
"Border poll"

Northern Ireland

March 1973

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


June 1975

Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?
The UK remained in the European Community.


March 1979

Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect?
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 met—only 32.8 per cent voted "yes".


March 1979

Do you want the provisions of the Wales Act 1978 to be put into effect?
Devolution did not proceed.


September 1997

I agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament or I do not agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament.
Agree: 74.3%
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.
Agree: 63.5%
Do not agree: 36.55%
The Scottish Parliament was given tax-raising powers.


September 1997

I agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly or I do not agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly.
Agree: 50.3%
Do not agree: 49.7%
The Welsh Assembly was established.
Greater London Authority


May 1998

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?
The Greater London Authority was established.
Belfast Agreement

Northern Ireland

May 1998

Do you support the Agreement reached at the Multi-Party Talks in Northern Ireland and set out in Command Paper 3883?
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

November 2004

Should there be an elected assembly for the North East region?[5]
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.[6] 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.[7]

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).

Our report

11.  In view of the commitments by political parties to the use of referendums, the following questions need to be addressed:

  •   What are the advantages and disadvantages of referendums?
  •   How do referendums accord with the UK's system of representative democracy?
  •   When is it appropriate for referendums to be used?
  •   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

2   A.V. Dicey (1890) 'Ought the referendum to be introduced into England?' Contemporary Review 57 (April).  Back

3   See Appendix 3 and Q 1. Back

4   See Box 2 for more details. Back

5   Parallel referendums were held at the same time on the proposed restructuring of local government. Back

6   See Rt Hon David Cameron MP speech, 26 May 2010:, and speech, 4 November 2009: See also Robert Hazell, The Conservative Agenda for Constitutional Reform, The Constitution Unit, University College London (London, February 2010), Chapter 13. Back

7   See Back

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