Referenda in the UK

Referenda in the UK

What is a Referendum?

A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is invited to vote on a particular proposal. This may result in the adoption of a new policy or specific law.

Key Referendums in the UK

  • European Union membership: In 2016, a referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU resulted in a majority vote for Brexit.
  • Scottish Independence: In 2014, Scotland held a referendum to decide whether or not to be an independent country. The “No” side won with 55.3% voting against independence.
  • Alternative Vote: The 2011 UK Alternative Vote referendum was a vote on a proposal to change the system for electing MPs to the House of Commons.

Characteristics of UK Referendums

  • Advisory in nature: UK referendums are not legally binding and are often considered consultative. The government is not required to implement the result, but there can be political consequences if they do not.
  • Simple majority: UK referendums usually require a simple majority to win (more than 50%).
  • Universal suffrage: Referenda generally use the same electorate as general elections - those aged 18 and over who are resident and registered to vote in the UK.

Evaluating Referendums


  • Direct democracy: Referendums give people the chance to participate in decision-making and express direct consent on specific issues.
  • Legitimacy: Important constitutional issues can be settled with greater legitimacy through a referendum.


  • Majoritarian: In a close vote, a small majority can impose its will on a large minority.
  • Voter knowledge: Voters may not fully understand the issue, or be influenced by unrelated matters.
  • Irreversibility: Referendum results are typically considered to be irreversible, which could potentially lock in poor decisions.

The Role of Referendums in UK Politics

  • Supplement to representative democracy: Referendums in the UK do not replace parliamentary sovereignty, but rather supplement the workings of representative democracy.
  • Settling issues: Referendums can settle contentious issues that politicians may find difficult to address.
  • Erosion of sovereignty: Some argue that referendums undermine parliamentary sovereignty, as the final decision lies with the electorate rather than elected representatives.