Referendums in UK democracy: how should they work in practice?

The Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit to review the role of referendums in UK democracy, has now met twice. One of the issues they are considering is rules for how referendums should work in practice. The Commission’s Research Assistant, Jess Sargeant, summarises the issues for consideration.

In a previous blog post I explored some principles that could be used for deciding when a referendum might be appropriate. The Independent Commission on Referendums is also considering how referendums should work in practice. The following post explores some key practical questions.

Should there be rules for when a referendum is required, permitted or prohibited?

The UK is unusual among comparable democracies in that referendums are held ad hoc: there are very few standing rules on when referendums are to be held. This means, at least in theory, that there are no restrictions on matters that a referendum may be held on: it could be held on any issue within parliament’s legislative competence.

Many other democracies have provisions in their constitutions setting out when a referendum must be, can be, or cannot be held. Constitutional issues are the most common category of issues on which a referendum is required. For example, Ireland, Australia and Japan require referendums on any bills amending the constitution. In Austria, Spain, Lithuania and Iceland amendments to certain key parts of the constitution must be approved in a popular vote. There are also examples of referendums being required on other issues: Denmark has mandatory referendums on transfers of sovereignty and changes to the voting age.

Where referendums are not required on constitutional amendments, there is often a mechanism allowing a parliamentary minority to trigger one, as is the case in Italy, Austria and Spain. In some democracies, legislation can be put to a referendum if requested by a body so empowered by the constitution. This could be the parliament, as in Denmark and Austria, the president, as in Ireland and Iceland, or groups of citizens, as in Italy and the Netherlands. Where referendums are permitted on legislation, certain types of legislation are often exempt: most commonly, finance, budgetary and tax laws or legislation implementing treaties.

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In the event of a Leave vote Brexit would dominate Westminster for years


The Constitution Unit, together with the UCL European Institute, is holding a special series of seminars on the implications and consequences of Brexit. The first, on 21 April, focused on the consequences for Westminster and Whitehall. In this post, adapted from his comments on the night, former Clerk of the House of Commons Lord Lisvane discusses the impact that a vote to leave the EU would have on Westminster in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, during Brexit negotiations and once Brexit has actually taken place.

The immediate aftermath

After a vote to leave there will be immediate pressure for debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, probably over two days, to be held as soon as possible. There may even be calls for a rare weekend recall, though this is in the Prime Minister’s hands and I think it very unlikely that he would grant one.

David Cameron’s future will, of course, be high on the agenda. He has said that he would stay on as Prime Minister to oversee the consequences of a vote to leave, but there are Conservative MPs who have suggested that he won’t have the opportunity to do that. Might he throw the dice and have a vote of confidence among members of his own party, or would that be too high risk?

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How parliament influences policy: academic and practitioner perspectives


There is now a large body of academic research demonstrating that the Westminster parliament has considerable policy influence, yet claims that the UK has an executive-dominated political system persist. On 15 March Professor Meg Russell and Professor Philip Cowley, who between them have carried out much of the key research in this area, spoke at a Constitution Unit seminar on the policy impact of parliament along with Sarah Champion MP, who offered an insider perspective. Ruxandra Serban reports.

Public and media discourse is often shaped by a longstanding assumption that the Westminster parliament is weak relative to the executive – but is this really true? A closer look demonstrates that it is a complex and often misunderstood institution. On 15 March the Constitution Unit, in collaboration with the Hansard Society and the Parliament and Constitution Centre of the House of Commons Library, hosted a seminar in parliament with Professor Meg Russell (Director of the Constitution Unit), Professor Philip Cowley (Queen Mary University of London), and Sarah Champion MP, to discuss parliament’s policy impact.

The legislative process, the Lords and select committees

Speaking first, Meg Russell suggested that the constant portrayal of parliament as a weak institution should be a matter for concern, as perpetuating an inaccurate assumption may drive down trust in the political process. The impact of parliament on policy has been a major strand of the Unit’s research in recent years, including extensive work on the legislative process, the House of Lords and select committees.

Tracing amendments in both chambers on 12 bills (2005-2012) revealed that although at first glance government amendments were much more successful than non-government amendments (94 per cent were passed, compared to 0.7 per cent of non-government amendments), in fact 60 per cent of government amendments that made substantive policy change were traceable to parliamentary pressure, mostly through previous non-government amendments. Select committee recommendations can also lead the government to bring forward amendments of their own , notably including the reversal of the Labour government’s manifesto policy on smoking in public places from a partial to a complete ban. These findings are elaborated in an article by Meg Russell, Daniel Gover and Kristina Wollter, recently published in the journal Parliamentary Affairs.

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The Privy Council and renewal of the BBC Charter

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Tonight Lord Fowler is speaking at a Constitution Unit seminar about the future of the BBC, as the corporation’s Charter comes up for renewal amid fears about its future funding and independence. The Charter is formally approved by the Privy Council, but will in fact be subject to significant parliamentary scrutiny. In this post Robert Hazell explains the role of the Privy Council, and the process of Charter renewal.

In media interviews about Jeremy Corbyn joining the Privy Council, I have been tempted to dismiss it as a dignified part of the constitution.  It has been criticised for being undemocratic and unaccountable, but in truth most of its formal business is of very little public interest.  It does meet in private, and its members are sworn to secrecy (hence the security briefings which the Prime Minister can give to the Leader of the Opposition on ‘Privy Councillor terms’).  But occasionally it is responsible for something of wide public interest, such as renewal of the BBC’s Charter.  On those occasions approval by the Privy Council does not preclude extensive public and parliamentary debate.

The Privy Council has about 650 members, mainly senior politicians; many of them now retired, since appointment is for life.  They are appointed by the Queen on the advice of the government; some members such as senior judges are appointed ex officio.  Their role is to advise the Queen on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative.  Meetings are held once a month, to approve Orders in Council.  The Queen is usually attended by just four ministers, led by the Lord President of the Council (currently the Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling).  Meetings are held standing up, so despatch of the business is brisk.  Every Order in Council has been drafted by a government department, and where necessary is subject to prior consultation and collective ministerial agreement; approval by the Privy Council is the final stage, a formal sign-off with no discussion.
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British Values? It’s time for schools to give students a future not a catch-phrase

CF-House of Lords July 2010

Andy Thornton argues that the current emphasis ‘British Values’ can only have meaning if it is supported by better citizenship education in schools.

The term ‘British Values’ has emerged as a catch-phrase to denote Britain’s take on liberal democracy. Beyond face-value, its political appeal is clear. It reaches into the UKIP electoral battleground, hinting that today’s Conservatives remain happy to bundle our history and customs into a formula that conjures up ‘the golden age’.

But its arrival in a fracas over school management has to be something of a surprise. It wouldn’t have been too long ago that British schools and British-ness would have been synonymous. Within living memory schools have been under Local Authority control, so how could they not be exponents of British Values?

You may not know it, but a similar discussion arose in 2007 when Gordon Brown asked for a review of the content of the National Curriculum for Citizenship.

Gordon Brown’s concerns were formulated around ‘British Identity’, not values. But similarly he wanted to ensure that the understanding behind the formation of the UK’s democratic structures was being utilised to create a tolerant and inclusive democracy: enabling established residents and newcomers to work together in peaceful coexistence towards the common good. This was of sound purpose as growing diversity in many regions was provoking conflict, and he could see that state schools (93% of all schools) are a critical cauldron in which values are established and competences for democratic life are developed and tested.

The result was that the citizenship curriculum was expanded to contain a section which essentially instructed all schools to tackle issues of identity, diversity and inclusion within the curriculum.

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What does the public really think about democracy in Britain?

New data from the European Social Survey shows that while the British public value democracy many feel the UK government is failing to live up to its democratic ideals. Sarah Butt explores the key findings.

In response to the recent alleged “Trojan Horse” plot to radicalise pupils in Birmingham schools, Education Secretary Michael Gove has called for British values including democracy and the rule of law to be placed at the heart of the National Curriculum.  But what does living in a liberal democracy actually involve? And how confident are we that democracy in Britain lives up to these ideals?  New findings from the European Social Survey (ESS) provide an in-depth look at how well the British public feel democracy in Britain delivers what they think matters most.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the vast majority of people in Britain think that it is important to live in a country that is governed democratically (average importance rating 8.4 out of 10).  However, people are more ambivalent about whether Britain is actually democratic (average importance rating 6.6 out of 10). A significant minority of people (26 %) do not rate Britain above five out of 10 on the democracy scale. There is evidence therefore of a democratic deficit.

High Expectations

The ESS reveals that people have high expectations of democracy.  The survey asked respondents to rate how important – on a scale from 0 to 10 – they considered a number of different attributes to be for democracy.   Most attributes received an average rating of at least eight out of 10 with people believing that democracy, in addition to guaranteeing free and fair elections and protecting civil liberties, should also protect people against poverty and involve citizens in decision-making.

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Mrs Thatcher and State Funerals

12th April 2013

So, what is the difference between Mrs Thatcher’s and a state funeral?  Doing media interviews this week, I have confidently stated that a state funeral involves:

  • A vote in Parliament
  • The coffin lying in state in Westminster Hall
  • The gun carriage bearing the coffin being drawn by sailors rather than horses.

My reliable source?  An unusually authoritative and detailed entry in Wikipedia, titled State Funerals in the UK.

But now I am not so sure.  If the purpose of the vote in Parliament is to authorise the spending of public money on the funeral, how is it that Mrs Thatcher’s funeral will be largely funded by the state, but without any parliamentary authorisation?  (Someone from the Treasury please answer).  And can Parliament authorise expenditure by simple resolution, based on a humble Address?  Here is the text of the parliamentary approval for Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral:

‘That a humble Address be presented to her Majesty, humbly to thank her Majesty for having given directions for the body of the Right Honourable Sir Winston Churchill, Knight of the Garter, to lie in state in Westminster Hall and for the funeral service to be held in the Cathedral Church of St Paul and assuring her Majesty of our cordial aid and concurrence in these measures …’  (Hansard 25 Jan 1965).

The second element, lying in state, is clearly not a defining element of state funerals, since the Queen Mother had a lying in state in Westminster Hall in 2002, as part of her ceremonial funeral.

That leaves us with the third element, the gun carriage being drawn by sailors.  Wiki explains that the tradition dates back to the funeral of Queen Victoria, when ‘the horses drawing the gun carriage bolted, and so ratings from the Royal Navy hauled it to the Chapel at Windsor’.  That sounds alarming: a gun carriage careering out of control, the coffin sliding off …  The reality was less dramatic: the horses seemed restive, and so the sailors were substituted to be on the safe side.  The Buckingham Palace website records:  ‘The horses that were supposed to pull the gun-carriage became restless standing in the cold and were behaving in a dangerous manner, so  a team of sailors took over the task of pulling the gun carriage to St George’s Chapel’.

So, what is a state funeral?  I now think that it is a funeral for a head of state, a state occasion attended by other heads of state.

And who apart from the Sovereign has been accorded a state funeral?  Wikipedia gives a full list: remember these for your next Constitution Unit quiz.  It includes:

  • Four Prime Ministers (Wellington, Palmerston, Gladstone, Churchill)
  • Three Field Marshals (Napier, Roberts and Haig)
  • Two Admirals (Blake and Nelson)
  • Plus Sir Philip Sidney (1586), Sir Isaac Newton (1727), and that old rogue Lord Carson (1935).