When does the British Constitution require a Referendum? – V. Bogdanor’s opinion on the place for the referendum in the UK

26th February 2013

Referendums are increasingly becoming part of British civic life. Whilst this constitutional instrument remained unused in Britain until forty years ago, eleven referendums have taken place in the United Kingdom since 1973 –  with only two  held nationwide. In the past fifteen years a substantial number of constitutional issues have been subjected to popular approval.

According to Professor Vernon Bogdanor, the recent experience of referendums in the UK suggests the emergence of a new constitutional convention.   Before significant powers could be devolved away from Westminster, a referendum would be required. In Professor Bogdanor’s opinion, the precedents set by the Scottish devolution referendums (1979 and 1997), the Welsh devolution referendums (1979, 1997 and 2011), the Greater London Authority referendum (1998), the Northern Ireland Belfast Agreement referendum (1998) and the North East England devolution referendum (2004) have developed a convention that may in turn constrain governments. Under this doctrine, the Westminster government would have an obligation to hold a referendum in the case of a delegation of power to devolved institutions and would be bound by its result.

Professor Bogdanor also argues that a referendum would be required when other major constitutional reforms are considered by Parliament. The most obvious examples would be the referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system in 2011 and the future referendum on EU membership proposed by the Prime Minister, David Cameron. With these referendums – so the argument goes – political actors have created a precedent. They have generated a public expectation that certain pivotal issues of constitutional relevance remain the preserve of popular sovereignty. For this reason, it may even be possible to pose the question of whether the People could be regarded as the third chamber of Parliament. Therefore, even though an elastic and uncodified constitution (such as that of the UK) would in principle imply an elastic role for referendums, the referendum has developed into a doctrine that might even constrain Parliament.

The difficulty with this doctrine is that other recent major constitutional changes – such as the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (which created the new Supreme Court) – have not been sanctioned by a referendum; nor was a referendum proposed before introducing elections to the House of Lords.

This suggests the doctrine is not yet particularly firm, even in relation to devolution. For example, a referendum was required before the Welsh Assembly could be granted primary legislative powers, but not for the grant of greater fiscal powers to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act 2012. If next year’s Scottish independence referendum fails, and there are then proposals for Devo-Max, will a further referendum be required? Or will it depend on the actual result of the independence referendum? This uncertainty does not suggest the presence of a precise doctrine and appears to reinforce the argument that the use of referendums in the UK – in the absence of a codified constitution – is largely based on political considerations.