Referendums in the United Kingdom
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Referendums in the United Kingdom are by tradition extremely rare due to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. To date, only three referendums have been held which have covered the whole of the United Kingdom: the first on membership of the European Economic Community in 1975, the second on adopting the Alternative vote system in parliamentary elections in 2011, and the third on whether to remain in the European Union in 2016.
The Government of the United Kingdom has also to date held ten major referendums within the constituent countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on issues of devolution, sovereignty and independence, the first such referendum was the 1973 Northern Ireland border poll and the most recent being the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum.
Under the European Union Act 2011 there is provision for the holding of future referendums in the event of powers being transferred from the United Kingdom to the European Union under any treaty changes however following the UK decision to leave the European Union in the 2016 EU Referendum it is likely to be repealed without ever being used.
- 1 Status of referendums
- 2 Planned referendums
- 3 Organisation
- 4 United Kingdom referendums
- 5 List of other major referendums
- 6 Minor (local) referendums
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Status of referendums
Major referendums have been rare in the UK, and have always been on constitutional issues. Before Tony Blair's Labour government came to power in 1997, only four such referendums had been held. Historically referendums within the United Kingdom were opposed on the supposition that they violate the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. In May 1945 the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill suggested holding a referendum over the question of extending the life of his wartime Coalition until victory was won over Japan, be allowed to continue in office however Clement Attlee refused citing ‘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.’ implying that referendums were a totally unknown and alien device to British politics. In March 1975 Margaret Thatcher also quoted Clement Attlee that referendums are “a device of dictators and demagogues” as Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler had exploited their use in the past.
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). To date the previous three UK-wide referendums in 1975, 2011 and 2016 were all post-legislative. 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.
For any UK-wide referendum to be held legislation has to be passed by the UK Parliament for each vote to take place as there is no pre-determined format or voting franchise for any such vote however unlike a general election is no legal requirement for HM Government to not take any official position in any such vote and in 1975 under the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson formally recommended a "yes" vote and in 2016 formally recommended a "remain" vote (a decision which later partly led to the resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minister following the decision to "Leave the European Union" by the British electorate) but in the 2011 no official position was taken as the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was split on the issue.
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 or repealing legislation. However, reversing legislation approved by referendum would be unprecedented.
Finally, under the Local Government Act 1972, there is a 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, and 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 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 Scottish Government held a referendum on Scottish independence on 18 September 2014. It attracted a turnout of 84.59%, the highest for any referendum held in the UK. The majority (55.3%) voted against Scotland being an independent country.
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 and EU), in 2017. However, their Liberal Democrat coalition partners took an opposing stance so it was not Coalition Government policy. The Conservatives then attempted to pass the required legislation as a Private Member's Bill (the European Union (Referendum) Bill 2013-14 introduced by Conservative MP James Wharton), but this was not passed by the House of Lords. Following the United Kingdom general election, 2015 the Prime Minister, David Cameron committed the new Conservative government to holding the referendum. It took place on 23 June 2016. The referendum resulted in an overall vote to leave the EU, as opposed to remaining an EU member, by 51.9% to 48.1%, respectively.
Prior to 2000, there was no public body to regulate referendums within the United Kingdom but during that year the government led by Tony Blair set out a framework for the running of future referendums when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 or PPERA was passed, creating and giving the Electoral Commission responsibility for running all elections and such future referendums.
United Kingdom referendums
To date there has only been three referendums held which have covered the whole of the United Kingdom. In the following is a run down of each of the nationwide referendums to which have been held.
1975 European Communities membership referendum
On Thursday 5 June 1975 the United Kingdom held its first ever nationwide referendum on whether to continue its membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) or the "Common Market" as it was more widely known at the time. The UK had been a member of the EEC since January 1, 1973 and the vote came about after a manifesto commitment by the Labour Party under the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the UK General Election in October 1974 and following a renegotiation of EEC membership. All of the major political parties and mainstream press supported continuing membership of the EEC. However, there were significant splits within the ruling Labour party, the membership of which had voted 2:1 in favour of withdrawal at a one-day party conference on 26 April 1975. Since the cabinet was split between strongly pro-European and strongly anti-European ministers, Harold Wilson suspended the constitutional convention of Cabinet collective responsibility and allowed ministers to publicly campaign on either side. Seven of the twenty-three members of the cabinet opposed EEC membership. The referendum which was non-blinding was conducted under the provisions of the Referendum Act 1975 as there was no prior procedure or legislation within the United Kingdom for the holding of any such plebiscite. The two campaign groups in the referendum was advocating a yes vote "Britain in Europe" and advocating a no vote was the national referendum campaign known as "Out and into the World".
The voters were asked to vote yes or no on the question: "Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?" Of the 68 counting areas in the administrative regions of the UK who voted "Yes", only the Shetland Islands and the Outer Hebrides voted "No". In line with the outcome of the vote, the United Kingdom remained a member of the EEC.
2011 Alternative Vote referendum
The alternative vote referendum, as part of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement drawn up after the 2010 general election, was a nationwide vote held on Thursday 5 May 2011 (the same date as local elections in many areas) to choose the method of electing MPs at subsequent general elections. The referendum concerned whether to replace the present "first-past-the-post" system with the "alternative vote" (AV) method. The voters were asked to vote yes or no on the question "At present, the UK uses the "first past the post" system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the "alternative vote" system be used instead?". It was the first nationwide referendum to be held for some thirty six years and was legislated for under the provisions of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 and is to date the first and only UK-wide referendum to be held on a domestic piece of legislation. Turnout was low at just 42% nationally and was also marked by relatively low key campaigning. The two campaigning groups for the referendum was advocating a yes vote "Yes to Fairer Votes and advocating a no vote NOtoAV.
AV was rejected by 67% of voters with all but ten of the 440 voting areas voted "No" and the proposed legislation to introduce AV which was subject to the referendum was repealed.
|United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum, 2011|
|Invalid or blank votes||113,292||0.59|
|Registered voters and turnout||45,684,501||42.20|
2016 European Union membership referendum
On Thursday 23 June 2016 the United Kingdom voted, for the second time in 41 years, on its membership to what is now known as the European Union (EU). The referendum was called after Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron made a manifesto commitment in the 2015 UK general election to undertake a renegotiation of the UK's membership to the European Union which would be followed by a in-out referendum. All of the major political parties were in favour of remaining an EU member, except for a split within the Conservative Party. The cabinet was split between pro-EU and anti-EU ministers, and Cameron suspended the constitutional convention of Cabinet collective responsibility, allowing ministers to publicly campaign on either side. Seven of the 23 members of the Cabinet opposed continued EU membership.
The referendum, which was non-binding, was legislated for under the provisions of the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which legally required HM Government to hold the referendum no later than 31 December 2017. Voters were asked to vote "Remain a member of the European Union" or "Leave the European Union" on the question "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" The main campaign groups for the referendum were advocating a "remain" vote was Britain Stronger in Europe and advocating a "leave" vote was Vote Leave.
The "Leave" option was voted by 52% of voters, as opposed to 48% of voters who wished to "Remain". The vote revealed divisions among the constituent nations of the United Kingdom, with England and Wales voting to leave, but Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain. The turnout was 72%. It was the first time HM Government had lost a national referendum. As a direct consequence of losing the refendum, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister on the morning following the vote. He left office three weeks later on 13 July, and was succeeded by Theresa May.
|United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016|
|Invalid or blank votes||25,359||0.08|
|Registered voters and turnout||46,500,001||72.21|
|Source: Electoral Commission|
List of other major referendums
Since 1973 there have been ten other referendums held by the Government of the United Kingdom within the constituent countries related to the issues of sovereignty, devolution and independence in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and in parts of England in the North East and London.
- Greater London Authority referendum, 1998, on whether there should be a Mayor of London and Greater London Authority (yes)
- North East England devolution referendum, 2004, on an elected regional assembly (no)
- English mayoral referendums, 2012 on elected mayors (no)
- Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum, 1973, on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom (UK) or join the Republic of Ireland (No)
- Northern Ireland Belfast Agreement referendum, 1998, on the Good Friday Agreement (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)
- 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)
- Scottish independence referendum, 2014 on the question "Should Scotland be an independent country?", 18 September 2014 (no)
- Welsh devolution referendum, 1979, on whether there should be a Welsh Assembly (no)
- Welsh devolution referendum, 1997, on whether there should be a National Assembly for Wales (yes)
- Welsh devolution referendum, 2011, on whether the National Assembly should have increased law-making powers (yes)
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.
Source: Electoral Commission; Ceredigion County Council
|Local authority||Date||Yes Votes||Yes Vote %||No Votes||No Vote %||Turnout %||Outcome|
|Berwick-upon-Tweed||7 June 2001||3,617||26||10,212||74||64||no|
|Cheltenham||28 June 2001||8,083||33||16,602||67||32||no|
|Gloucester||28 June 2001||7,731||32||16,317||68||31||no|
|Watford||12 July 2001||7,636||52||7,140||48||25||yes|
|Doncaster||20 September 2001||35,453||65||19,398||35||25||yes|
|Kirklees||4 October 2001||10,169||27||27,977||73||13||no|
|Sunderland||11 October 2001||9,375||43||12,209||57||10||no|
|Brighton & Hove||18 October 2001||22,724||38||37,214||62||32||no|
|Hartlepool||18 October 2001||10,667||51||10,294||49||34||yes|
|Lewisham||18 October 2001||16,822||51||15,914||49||18||yes|
|Middlesbrough||18 October 2001||29,067||84||5,422||16||34||yes|
|North Tyneside||18 October 2001||30,262||58||22,296||42||36||yes|
|Sedgefield||18 October 2001||10,628||47||11,869||53||33||no|
|Redditch||8 November 2001||7,250||44||9,198||56||28||no|
|Durham||20 November 2001||8,327||41||11,974||59||29||no|
|Harrow||6 December 2001||17,502||43||23,554||57||26||no|
|Plymouth||24 January 2002||29,559||41||42,811||59||40||no|
|Harlow||24 January 2002||5,296||25||15,490||75||25||no|
|Newham||31 January 2002||27,263||68||12,687||32||26||yes|
|Southwark||31 January 2002||6,054||31||13,217||69||11||no|
|West Devon||31 January 2002||3,555||23||12,190||77||42||no|
|Shepway||31 January 2002||11,357||44||14,438||56||36||no|
|Bedford||21 February 2002||11,316||67||5,537||33||16||yes|
|Hackney||2 May 2002||24,697||59||10,547||41||32||yes|
|Mansfield||2 May 2002||8,973||55||7,350||45||21||yes|
|Newcastle-under-Lyme||2 May 2002||12,912||44||16,468||56||31.5||no|
|Oxford||2 May 2002||14,692||44||18,686||56||34||no|
|Stoke-on-Trent||2 May 2002||28,601||58||20,578||42||27||yes|
|Corby||1 October 2002||5,351||46||6,239||54||31||no|
|Ealing||12 December 2002||9,454||45||11,655||55||10||no|
|Ceredigion||20 May 2004||5,308||27||14,013||73||36||no|
|Isle of Wight||5 May 2005||28,786||43.7||37,097||56.3||60.4||no|
|Torbay||15 July 2005||18,074||55.2||14,682||44.8||32.1||yes|
|Crewe and Nantwich||4 May 2006||11,808||38.2||18,768||60.8||35.3||no|
|Darlington||27 September 2007||7,981||41.6||11,226||58.4||24.7||no|
|Stoke-on-Trent||23 October 2008||14,592||41||21,231||59||19.23||no|
|Tower Hamlets||6 May 2010||60,758||60.3||39,857||39.7||62.1||yes|
|Salford||26 January 2012||17,344||56.0||13,653||44.0||18.1||yes|
|Birmingham||3 May 2012||88,085||42.2||120,611||57.8||28.35||no|
|Bradford||3 May 2012||53,949||44.9||66,283||55.1||35||no|
|Bristol||3 May 2012||41,032||53||35,880||47||24||yes|
|Coventry||3 May 2012||22,619||36.4||39,483||63.6||26.6||no|
|Leeds||3 May 2012||62,440||36.7||107,910||63.3||31||no|
|Manchester||3 May 2012||42,677||46.8||48,593||53.2||25.3||no|
|Newcastle upon Tyne||3 May 2012||24,630||38.1||40,089||61.9||no|
|Nottingham||3 May 2012||20,943||42.5||28,320||57.5||23.9||no|
|Sheffield||3 May 2012||44,571||35.0||82,890||65.0||no|
|Wakefield||3 May 2012||27,610||37.8||45,357||62.2||no|
|Copeland||22 May 2014||12,671||69.8||5,489||30.2||33.9||yes|
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."
- Elections in the United Kingdom
- Referendum Act 1975
- Parish and Community Meetings (Polls) Rules 1987
- Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011
- Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000
- European Union Act 2011
- Edinburgh Agreement (2012)
- European Union Referendum Act 2015
- Category:Referendums in British Overseas Territories
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- The "Yes" column was for the option retaining the elected Mayor, the "No" option was for the option removing the position
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