Referendums in the United Kingdom
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Referendums are occasionally held within the United Kingdom. The Government of the United Kingdom has held twelve referendums, the first in 1973; only two of these covered the whole UK. In addition, there have also been numerous referendums held by local authorities on issues such as Temperance and directly elected mayors.
The current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has promised a referendum on any further EU treaty that transfers any powers from the UK government to the European Union.
Status of referendums
There are two types of referendum that have been held by the UK Government, pre-legislative (held before proposed legislation is passed) and post-legislative (held after legislation is passed). Referendums are not legally binding, so legally the Government can ignore the results; for example, even if the result of a pre-legislative referendum were a majority of ‘No' for a proposed law, Parliament could pass it anyway, because parliament is sovereign.
Legally, Parliament at any point in future could reverse legislation approved by referendum because the concept of parliamentary sovereignty means no Parliament can prevent a future Parliament from amending/repealing legislation. However, it is unlikely many governments would attempt to reverse legislation approved by referendum as it would probably be controversial and potentially damaging to its popularity.
Finally, under the Local Government Act 1972, there is a little-known provision under which non-binding local referendums on any issue can be called by small groups of voters. This power exists only for parish councils, and not larger authorities, it is commonly known as the "Parish Poll". Six local voters may call a meeting, and if ten voters or a third of the meeting (whichever is smaller) agree, the council must carry out a referendum in 14–25 days. The referendum is merely advisory, but if there is a substantial majority and the results are well-publicised, it may be influential.
The Labour Government of 1997-2010 held five referendums on devolution, four of which received a yes majority. One concerning the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe was cancelled, given the French and Dutch rejections of the treaty. Another, on whether the UK should adopt the euro, was never held.
The Labour manifesto for the 1997 general election stated 'We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons.' Despite the research carried out by the Jenkins Commission in 1998 suggesting an AV+ system for Westminster elections, the 2001 manifesto did not make such a promise. After the inconclusive 2010 General Election the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives formed a coalition. As part of the coalition agreement, both parties formally committed to holding a referendum on changes to the electoral system. The referendum was held on 5 May 2011 and was overwhelmingly defeated.
Since the Government of Wales Act 2006 became law, there can be referendums in Wales asking the people whether the National Assembly for Wales should be given greater law making powers. The Welsh Labour Party - Plaid Cymru Coalition Government in the Welsh Assembly held such a referendum in 2011, resulting in a yes vote.
The Conservative Party announced that they plan to hold a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union (following a renegotiation of powers between the UK & EU), in 2017. However, their Liberal Democrat coalition partners take an opposing stance so it is not Coalition Government policy. The Conservatives have attempted to pass the required legislation anyway as a Private Member's Bill (introduced by Conservative MP James Wharton), but this was not passed by the House of Lords. The bill has since been re-introduced to parliament and the Prime Minister has committed a future Conservative government (if the Conservative party wins a majority in 2015) to holding the referendum. The announcement has generated controversy.
Until 2000, there was no body to regulate referendums. In 2000, the government set out a framework for the running of future referendums when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 or PPERA was passed, giving the Electoral Commission responsibility for running referendums.
List of major referendums
Since 1973 there have been twelve referendums held by the Government of the United Kingdom, the majority of them have been related to the issue of devolution. The first UK-wide referendum was held in 1975 on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Community.
- Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum, 1973, on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland (UK)
- United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum, 1975, on whether the UK should remain part of the European Economic Community (yes)
- Scottish devolution referendum, 1979, on whether there should be a Scottish Assembly (small majority voted yes, but fell short of the 40% threshold required to enact devolution)
- Welsh devolution referendum, 1979, on whether there should be a Welsh Assembly (no)
- Scottish devolution referendum, 1997, Two questions: On whether there should be a Scottish Parliament (yes); On whether a Scottish Parliament should have tax varying powers (yes)
- Welsh devolution referendum, 1997, on whether there should be a National Assembly for Wales (yes)
- Greater London Authority referendum, 1998, on whether there should be a Mayor of London and Greater London Authority (yes)
- Northern Ireland Belfast Agreement referendum, 1998, on the Good Friday Agreement (yes)
- North East England devolution referendum, 2004, on an elected regional assembly (no)
- Welsh devolution referendum, 2011 (yes)
- United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum, 2011, 5 May 2011. (no)
- Scottish independence referendum, 2014 on the question "Should Scotland be an independent country?", 18 September 2014. (no)
Minor (local) referendums
Elected mayors in England and Wales
Thirty-seven local referendums have taken place in local authorities to establish whether there is support for directly elected mayors. Thirteen received a "Yes" majority and twenty-four a "No" majority. The highest turnout was 64% in Berwick-upon-Tweed (held alongside the 2001 general election) and the lowest was 10% in Ealing. On average, the turnout was similar to that of local elections.
The majority of those were held between June 2001 and May 2002—a further eight have been held since.
In 2008 a reorganisation of Stoke-on-Trent's system of local government required a further referendum; this abolished the post of Mayor.
"Yes" majority shown in green, "No" majority shown in red.
Source: Electoral Commission; Ceredigion County Council
|Local authority||Date||Yes Votes||Yes Vote %||No Votes||No Vote %||Turnout %|
|Berwick-upon-Tweed||7 June 2001||3,617||26||10,212||74||64|
|Cheltenham||28 June 2001||8,083||33||16,602||67||32|
|Gloucester||28 June 2001||7,731||32||16,317||68||31|
|Watford||12 July 2001||7,636||52||7,140||48||25|
|Doncaster||20 September 2001||35,453||65||19,398||35||25|
|Kirklees||4 October 2001||10,169||27||27,977||73||13|
|Sunderland||11 October 2001||9,375||43||12,209||57||10|
|Brighton & Hove||18 October 2001||22,724||38||37,214||62||32|
|Hartlepool||18 October 2001||10,667||51||10,294||49||34|
|Lewisham||18 October 2001||16,822||51||15,914||49||18|
|Middlesbrough||18 October 2001||29,067||84||5,422||16||34|
|North Tyneside||18 October 2001||30,262||58||22,296||42||36|
|Sedgefield||18 October 2001||10,628||47||11,869||53||33|
|Redditch||8 November 2001||7,250||44||9,198||56||28|
|Durham||20 November 2001||8,327||41||11,974||59||29|
|Harrow||6 December 2001||17,502||43||23,554||57||26|
|Plymouth||24 Jan 2002||29,559||41||42,811||59||40|
|Harlow||24 Jan 2002||5,296||25||15,490||75||25|
|Newham||31 Jan 2002||27,263||68||12,687||32||26|
|Southwark||31 Jan 2002||6,054||31||13,217||69||11|
|West Devon||31 Jan 2002||3,555||23||12,190||77||42|
|Shepway||31 Jan 2002||11,357||44||14,438||56||36|
|Bedford||21 Feb 2002||11,316||67||5,537||33||16|
|Hackney||2 May 2002||24,697||59||10,547||41||32|
|Mansfield||2 May 2002||8,973||55||7,350||45||21|
|Newcastle-under-Lyme||2 May 2002||12,912||44||16,468||56||31.5|
|Oxford||2 May 2002||14,692||44||18,686||56||34|
|Stoke-on-Trent||2 May 2002||28,601||58||20,578||42||27|
|Corby||1 October 2002||5,351||46||6,239||54||31|
|Ealing||12 December 2002||9,454||45||11,655||55||10|
|Ceredigion||20 May 2004||5,308||27||14,013||73||36|
|Isle of Wight||5 May 2005||28,786||43.7||37,097||56.3||60.4|
|Torbay||15 July 2005||18,074||55.2||14,682||44.8||32.1|
|Crewe and Nantwich||4 May 2006||11,808||38.2||18,768||60.8||35.3|
|Darlington||27 Sept 2007||7,981||41.6||11,226||58.4||24.7|
|Stoke-on-Trent||23 Oct 2008||14,592||41||21,231||59||19.23|
|Tower Hamlets||6 May 2010||60,758||60.3||39,857||39.7||62.1|
The Temperance (Scotland) Act 1913 provided that polls could be held in small local areas in Scotland to determine whether to instate a level of prohibition on the purchase of alcoholic beverages; the provisions were later incorporated into the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1959. Between 1913 and 1965 1,131 such polls were held, with the vast majority (1,079) held before 1930. These provisions and the local polls were abolished by the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976.
The Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881 mandated that all public houses in Wales be closed on Sundays. The Act was extended to Monmouthshire in 1921. Under the terms of the Licensing Act 1961, on the application of 500 local electors, a referendum could be held in each local government area at seven-year intervals on whether that district should be "wet" or "dry" on the Sabbath. Most districts in the border area and the southern industrial area went "wet" in 1961 or 1968, with most others following suit in 1975. In 1982, the last district, Dwyfor, in western Gwynedd, went "wet" and it was thought that the influence of the Sabbatarian temperance movement had expired and few referendums were called, but surprisingly a further referendum was called in Dwyfor in 1989 and the area went "dry" for another seven years on a 9% turnout. The whole of Wales was "wet" from 1996, and the facility for further referendums was removed by the Sunday Licensing Act 2003.
The City of Edinburgh Council held a postal-ballot referendum in February 2005 over whether voters supported the Council's proposed transport strategy. These plans included a congestion charge which would have required motorists to pay a fee to enter the city at certain times of the day. The result was announced on 22 February 2005 and the people of Edinburgh had rejected the proposals. 74% voted against, 26% voted in favour, and the turnout was 62%.
"A poll may be demanded before the conclusion of a community meeting on any question arising at the meeting; but no poll shall be taken unless either the person presiding at the meeting consents or the poll is demanded by not less than ten, or one-third, of the local government electors present at the meeting, whichever is the less."
In September 2007, villagers in East Stoke in Dorset forced a referendum, under the Local Government Act 1972, on this question: "Do You Want a Referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty? Yes or No?" Of the 339 people who were eligible to vote, 80 voted: 72 votes for Yes and 8 votes for No. The poll was initiated by a supporter of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party. The poll was criticised by the chairman of the parish council as "little more than a publicity stunt."
- "Scotland to hold independence poll in 2014 - Salmond". BBC. 10 January 2012. Retrieved 10 January 2012.
- "Local". .prestel.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-05-09.
- "1997 Labour Party Manifesto". Labour-party.org.uk. 1999-01-01. Retrieved 2010-05-09.
- The "Yes" column was for the option retaining the elected Mayor, the "No" option was for the option removing the position
- "Temperance Polls (Hansard, 15 December 1965)". Hansard.millbanksystems.com. 1965-12-15. Retrieved 2010-12-04.
- Foggo, Daniel (1 October 2000). "Parishes reject euro by overwhelming margin". The Daily Telegraph (London).
- "Villagers back EU referendum call". BBC News. 2007-09-21. Retrieved 2010-05-09.
- [dead link]