A referendum is a mechanism by which a specific decision can be put to the electorate as a whole, thereby by-passing elected representatives. It is typically organised by asking the electorate to answer "yes" or "no" to a question or to vote "for" or "against" a particular proposition.

In favour of referendums

> they are an exercise in direct democracy, enabling the entire electorate to participate in decision making

> it is argued that decisions arrived at by referendum are more likely to reflect the electorate's wishes than ones taken by representatives

> it is argued that fundamental constitutional matters (for example, EU membership) should be decided directly by the electorate

> similarly, it is sometimes claimed that major moral issues could best be decided in this way

> they could help make the electorate more aware of the issues involved in any decision.

Against referendums

> the electorate is unlikely to have a full grasp of all the issues and arguments involved in any decision

> most decisions, especially constitutional and moral issues, are both complex and sophisticated, and are not appropriate for a simple yes/no question

> the supremacy of Parliament is undermined if some decisions are taken away from it

> it is difficult to devise neutral questions or propositions - i.e. ones which do not lead to a particular answer

> the electorate may vote for or against the government of the day, rather than on the actual issue of the referendum.


There has been no tradition of referendums in Britain until relatively recently. They were regarded as "alien" - something used by dictators and demagogues, and were thought to undermine Britain's tradition of representative democracy.

The first ever (and so far only) national referendum was in 1975 on continuing membership of the EEC. The result was a 2:1 majority in favour.

The second major referendum, in 1979, was not a national one. In fact there were two separate referendums, one in Scotland, the other in Wales, on the subject of devolution of powers. Neither of them produced a sufficient majority to go ahead with devolution at that time.

Referendums in the 1990s

With the advent of the Labour government in May 1997, there was a renewed interest in referendums. The new government saw referendums as a means of

> extending democracy, and

> entrenching significant political decisions which have constitutional implications.

Scottish devolution 1997

A referendum on the creation of a Scottish Parliament with tax varying powers was held in September 1997, with a relatively high turnout and with a clear majority in favour of the government's proposals.

Welsh devolution 1997

A referendum on proposals for a Welsh Assembly was held shortly after the Scottish referendum, but with a less clear cut result - the turnout was just over 50% and there was a very small majority in favour of the government's proposals.

London Assembly and Mayor

In May 1998 there was a referendum on the creation of a London Assembly and an elected Mayor for London. This was supported by all main parties and, because of the lack of controversy, there was only a small turn-out (about 30%). The result was a big majority in favour and the new system was introduced in 2000.

Mayoral referendums in local government

There have been 30 or 40 referendums in local authority areas to decide whether to adopt the mayoral system of political control. Only 11 areas have approved the idea so far.

Regional government

The Labour government held a referendum on possible regional government in the North-East in 2004, which resulted in a significant majority against. It is unlikely that any further regional referendum will take place in the forseeable future.

Future referendums

The government has promised a referendums on the EU constitution (sometime in 2006) and on entry to the euro, if and when that is proposed.


Referendums are a form of direct democracy which have been treated with great suspicion by British politicians over the years. The early referendums were largely used to solve party management problems.

The New Labour government appeared to be keen to broaden democracy by allowing more direct involvement in major political decisions – for example, in Scotland and Wales. However, even here there was some political calculation - they clearly believe that the decisions arrived at by referendum will be very difficult for any successor government to change, at least not without another referendum.

It is also clear that Labour will not risk calling a referendum on the euro until the government is reasonably certain of being able to get a positive result. They would not wish to be defeated in a referendum on a major policy issue which they were supporting.