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 2016 EU Referendum

In addition, there have also been numerous referendums held by local authorities on issues such as temperance and directly elected mayors.

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any treaty changes however following the UK decision to leave the European Union in the 2016 EU Referendum it will be repealed as part of the Great Repeal Bill 2016 without ever being used.

Status of referendums[edit]

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 although in 1975 under the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson the government formally recommended a "yes" vote to staying in the European Community and in 2016 formally recommended a "remain" vote to stay in the European Union (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.[1]

Planned referendums[edit]

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."[2] 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.[3] 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.

Organisation & Legislation[edit]

There was no public body to regulate referendums within the United Kingdom until the Labour government led by Tony Blair in 2000 set out a framework for the running of all 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. The Act also permitted the appointment of a "Chief counting officer (CCO)" to oversee all future UK-wide referendums which would be held by the Chairperson of the Electoral Commission.


Separate legislation is required for the holding of each UK-wide referendum which is held to set out the referendum question, it's format, the franchise for each plebiscite and how each count is conducted.

United Kingdom referendums[edit]

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[edit]

All but two areas voted "Yes"

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.[4] 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.[5]

United Kingdom European Community (Common Market) membership referendum, 1975
Choice Votes  %
Referendum passed Yes 17,378,581 67.23
No 8,470,073 32.77
Valid votes 25,848,654 99.79
Invalid or blank votes 54,540 0.59
Total votes 25,903,194 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 40,456,877 64.03

2011 Alternative Vote referendum[edit]

All but ten areas voted "No"

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
Choice Votes  %
Referendum failed No 13,013,123 67.9
Yes 6,152,607 32.1
Valid votes 19,165,730 99.41
Invalid or blank votes 113,292 0.59
Total votes 19,279,022 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 45,684,501 42.20

2016 European Union membership referendum[edit]

A total of 263 voting areas voted to "Leave" whilst 119 voting areas voted to "Remain" in the 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 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". Of the 382 voting areas, 263 returned majority votes in favor of "Leave" whilst 119 returned majority votes in favor of "Remain" which included every Scottish council area and all but five of the London boroughs. 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 national turnout was 72% which was eight percentage points higher than the turnout back in 1975. It was the first time HM Government had lost a national UK-wide referendum. As a direct consequence of losing the referendum, 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
Choice Votes  %
Leave the European Union 17,410,742 51.89
Remain a member of the European Union 16,141,241 48.11
Valid votes 33,551,983 99.92
Invalid or blank votes 25,359 0.08
Total votes 33,577,342 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 46,500,001 72.21
Voting age population and turnout 51,356,768 65.38
Source: Electoral Commission[6]; UNDESA (UK VAP); US Census Bureau (Gibraltar VAP)

List of other major referendums[edit]

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.


Northern Ireland[edit]



Minor (local) referendums[edit]

Since 1913, local referendums have been held in England, Wales and Scotland, covering temperance, directly elected mayors and transport issues.

Elected mayors in England and Wales[edit]

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[7] 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

Prohibition referendums[edit]

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.[8] 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.

Transport referendums[edit]

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%.

Parish polls[edit]

A parish poll is a referendum held in a civic parish under the Local Government Act 1972.[9] The cost of holding such polls is met by the parish council.[10]

"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."[11]

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."[12][13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Local". Retrieved 2010-05-09. 
  2. ^ "1997 Labour Party Manifesto". 1999-01-01. Retrieved 2010-05-09. 
  3. ^ "Cameron promises European Union referendum by 2017". The Irish Times. 2015-05-09. 
  4. ^ DAvis Butler. "The 1975 Referendum" (PDF). Retrieved 19 May 2016. 
  5. ^ "Research Briefings – The 1974–75 UK Renegotiation of EEC Membership and Referendum". Retrieved 19 May 2016. 
  6. ^ "EU referendum results". Electoral Commission. Retrieved 9 July 2016. 
  7. ^ The "Yes" column was for the option retaining the elected Mayor, the "No" option was for the option removing the position
  8. ^ "Temperance Polls (Hansard, 15 December 1965)". 1965-12-15. Retrieved 2010-12-04. 
  9. ^ Foggo, Daniel (1 October 2000). "Parishes reject euro by overwhelming margin". The Daily Telegraph. London. 
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Local Government Act 1972". Retrieved 2016-07-05. 
  12. ^ "Villagers back EU referendum call". BBC News. 2007-09-21. Retrieved 2010-05-09. 
  13. ^ [1] Archived 31 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine.

External links[edit]