Why the UK holds referendums: a look at past practice

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Since the first referendum in the UK above the local level was held in 1973, there have been three UK-wide referendums and ten referendums covering parts of the UK. In order to inform its recommendations about the circumstances in which referendums should be held, the Independent Commission on Referendums is examining the circumstances in which UK referendums have been held. In this post, Jess Sargeant explores the political history of referendums in the UK.

1973 Northern Irish Border Poll

The first non-local referendum in the UK, the 1973 Northern Irish border poll, followed the sharp deterioration in the security and political situation in the preceding years. When the UK government imposed direct rule, it pledged to hold a referendum on Northern Ireland’s future status within the UK. The purpose was to demonstrate public support for the Union, which would act as baseline for future negotiations. Although the referendum was largely boycotted by the Catholic population, the overwhelming vote (98.9%) in favour of remaining part of the UK was used legitimise the continuation of the constitutional status quo.

1975 European Economic Community membership referendum

The UK’s first national referendum was held just two years later, in 1975, on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). The UK had joined the EEC in 1973. In opposition, Labour was deeply divided on this. A referendum was first proposed in 1970 by Tony Benn, who opposed EEC membership. The idea gained little traction at the time, but future Prime Minister James Callaghan described it as ‘a rubber life-raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb’. Labour adopted the policy of putting EEC membership to a public vote in 1973, and this occurred after the party’s return to power in 1974.

1979 Scottish and Welsh devolution referendums

When proposals for devolution to Scotland and Wales were first devised in the late 1970s, the possibility of holding a referendum as part of the implementation process was not even considered. Neither the Scotland Bill nor the Wales Bill of 1979 as originally introduced provided for a referendum; the idea to hold such a vote came from those opposed to change. The Labour government was weak: having recently lost its narrow majority through by-election losses, it was vulnerable to backbench demands. When a referendum amendment was moved by anti-devolutionist rebels, the government was forced to concede to secure the bills’ passage. Later it had to give way on another backbench amendment, requiring 40% of the total eligible electorate to vote for change, despite the clearly obstructionist intentions of the amendment’s proposers. The bill passed and the referendums were held in March 1979.

1997 Scottish and Welsh devolution referendums

Following the flurry of referendums in the 1970s, none at all were called during the 18 years of Conservative government between 1979 and 1997. For most of this period, referendums were not even seriously on the agenda. But talk of referendums began to seep back into politics discourse in the early 1990s – often on European issues – and the manifesto on which Labour was elected in 1997 contained several referendum proposals.

Despite the 1979 devolution referendums, the 1997 referendums on devolution in Scotland and Wales were not as inevitable as is often assumed. Labour initially intended to introduce devolution without holding new referendums, arguing that it would obtain a mandate through the endorsement of its manifesto in the 1997 election. In June 1996, however, the party changed its mind.

The Shadow Scottish Secretary, George Robertson argued that referendums served the purpose of constitutional entrenchment: ‘We want to be sure that the democratic system we put in place is stable and durable. The best security a Scottish Parliament can have is the support of the people’. Some political scientists have argued that this change of heart was simply strategic, as promising a referendum would silence the Conservatives’ claim that a vote for Labour in the 1997 election would be a vote for the breakup of the UK. Nevertheless, the concept of using referendums for constitutional entrenchment – which was also found in Labour’s proposals for devolution in England – gained traction.

1998 Good Friday Agreement referendum

Following talks with the Taoiseach in 1996, the then Prime Minister, John Major, raised the prospect of holding referendums to mandate the start of negotiations: in his words, ‘to give the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to speak clearly about their own commitment to peaceful democratic methods and rejection of violence’. Broad provision for holding a referendum was included in the Northern Ireland (Entry into Negotiations etc) Act 1996, but no referendum was held at that point.

Nevertheless, it was widely recognised that the peace deal required popular endorsement to maximise legitimacy and ensure lasting peace. In addition, implementing the Good Friday Agreement would require a constitutional amendment in Ireland, which in turn would require a referendum. The terms of the Good Friday Agreement hence committed both the British and the Irish governments to holding referendums on the same day, 22 May 1998.

1998 London Assembly referendum and 2004 North East Assembly referendum

Unlike the referendums on devolution to Scotland and Wales, the referendums on the establishment of regional assemblies in England formed part of the original proposals themselves. Labour argued that there should be a test of consent before new assemblies were created, and that holding a referendum would ensure the permanence of such institutions. It said that, unlike in Scotland and Wales, manifesto commitments would not suffice, as the issue was less salient with the English electorate and the geographical basis for devolution less settled.

Proposals for a London Assembly and mayor were endorsed in a referendum in May 1998. Six years later, in 2004, the government planned referendums in three of its proposed devolved regions. Two were cancelled, but a postal referendum in the North East went ahead.  The proposal’s overwhelming rejection by voters halted government plans for future referendums on the subject.

2011 powers of the Welsh Assembly referendum

The 2011 referendum on the powers of the Welsh Assembly was mandated by a referendum provision in the Government of Wales Act 2006. The referendum requirement arose as the result of a compromise between pro-devolution and devolution-sceptic elements of the Welsh Labour Party. The original intention was to hold a referendum on whether to give the Assembly primary legislative powers. In the end, however, the Government of Wales Act gave the Assembly limited primary legislative powers, while stating that full powers would be introduced only after approval in a referendum. Compared to previous devolution referendums, the proposed changes were minor, but the legislation made a referendum necessary. After losing its majority in the 2007 Assembly election, Welsh Labour agreed to trigger the referendum provision as part of a coalition agreement with Plaid Cymru. It did this in February 2010, and the referendum was held in 2011.

2011 parliamentary voting system referendum

The 2011 referendum on the parliamentary voting system arose through the 2010 coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg made clear that voting reform would be a compulsory component of any post-election deal. The referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system was a compromise. It gave the Liberal Democrats a chance to achieve some electoral reform. Meanwhile, Conservatives would be able to campaign against the change, which they felt confident of defeating; even if AV won, it would still be a majoritarian system and a limited change. The bill enabling the referendum was introduced to parliament a mere ten weeks after the formation of the coalition government and the referendum was held on the same day as local elections the following May.

2014 Scottish independence referendum

In 2011 the SNP won a landslide victory in the Scottish Parliament election with a manifesto commitment to a referendum on independence. The UK government chose to accept the SNP’s mandate for the referendum. Perhaps it had little choice: obstructing the referendum would likely have bolstered the nationalists’ cause. In any case, opinion polls suggested that the Scottish electorate would vote to remain part of the UK. Following negotiations between the UK and Scottish governments, the UK parliament gave the Scottish Parliament the power to legislate for a referendum, which was held in 2014.

2016 European Union membership referendum

‘Europe’ has long divided the Conservative Party. As party leader, first in opposition and then in government, David Cameron came under increasing pressure to hold a referendum on the issue. In 2011 the coalition introduced legislation requiring a referendum on any new treaties that transferred power to the EU, but this was not enough.

In January 2013, facing growing dissent from within in his party and an electoral threat from UKIP, Cameron announced that he would seek to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU and then hold an in/out referendum. The referendum commitment was enshrined in the Conservative 2015 election manifesto. The Conservatives unexpectedly won an overall majority and a bill requiring a referendum to be held before the end of 2017 was introduced within three weeks of the election.


It is notable that all of the referendums so far held in the UK have been on constitutional issues – including self-determination, governmental power structures and voting rules. It has been very rare for referendums on other issues even to be proposed. But not all constitutional issues have been put to a referendum – major changes such as the Maastricht Treaty and the Human Rights Acts were introduced without one.

Decisions as to which constitutional issues are put to a referendum are often political: most commonly, they seek to resolve conflict within or between governments. However, once a decision has been made by the electorate through a referendum, it carries a popular legitimacy that makes it difficult to reverse without further reference to the people. As such, referendums have also been used as a mechanism of constitutional entrenchment in the context of the UK’s uncodified constitution. Constitutional conventions for holding referendums on certain issues have thus emerged, and some have even been codified in law. Thus, while referendums have gained a place in UK political practice in significant part through political calculation, they have also now acquired an established role in the UK’s constitutional arrangements. This combination of pragmatism and principle is likely to continue in the future.

About the author

Jess Sargeant is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit. She is currently working with Dr Alan Renwick on the Independent Commission on Referendums. The Commission will review the role and conduct of referendums in the UK and is expected to produce a report and recommendations in summer 2018.

One thought on “Why the UK holds referendums: a look at past practice

  1. Pingback: Reforming referendums: how can their use and conduct be improved? | The Constitution Unit Blog

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