A referendum is a popular vote on a single issue.

They are used to decide on a particular policy proposal, often of constitutional significance. They differ from elections- an election fills an office (so does not directly affect policy), whereas referendums do directly affect policy. Referendums are an example of direct democracy, whereas elections are a form of representative democracy. Referendums can be advisory (where the government does not have to implement the result), or binding (where the government is compelled to enact the result).

Before 1997, referendums were rarely used in the UK, due to concerns over the conflict with the principle of parliamentary democracy. Since __1973 __there have been eleven referendums held in the UK, the majority of them have been related to the issue of devolution. The first UK-wide referendum was held in __1975 __on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Community (European Union).

Advantages of referendums

  1. Public are given direct control over policy-making, ensuring their views and interests are directly reflected in policy
  2. Helps to educate the public about important political questions, as they will be better-informed about key issues through referendum campaigns
  3. Makes the government listen to the public more, as it is another way of voters communicating their thoughts other than just through elections
  4. Provides a check on government power- governments don’t control the outcome
  5. Ensures that major changes (e.g. constitutional change) have legitimacy, which is correct for any change that affects the governing of the country

Major referendums since 1997

  1. 11 September 1997: Scotland – Scottish devolution referendums on whether there should be a Scottish Parliament and whether the Scottish Parliament should have tax varying powers (both referendums received a yes vote of 74% and 64% respectively. Turnout 60%)
  2. 18 September 1997: Wales – Welsh devolution referendum on whether there should be a National Assembly for Wales (yes- 50%. Turnout 50%)
  3. 7 May 1998: London – Greater London Authority referendum on whether there should be a Mayor of London and Greater London Authority (yes- 72%. Turnout 34%)
  4. 22 May 1998: Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland Belfast Agreement referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, and establishing a Northern Ireland Assembly (yes- 72%. Turnout 80%)
  5. 3 March 2011: Wales - Welsh devolution referendum on whether the National Assembly for Wales should gain the power to legislate on a wider range of matters (yes- 63%. Turnout 35%)
  6. 5 May 2011: UK – referendum on whether to change the voting system for electing MPs to the House of Commons from first past the post to the alternative vote (no- 68%. Turnout 42%)
  7. 18 September 2014: Scotland – referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country (no- 55%. Turnout 85%).
  8. 23 June 2016: UK – referendum on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union (leave- 52%. Turnout 72%)


The increasing use of referendums in the UK has created a convention that they should be used for major constitutional change or a change to the way in which the UK is governed. Their increasing use (or at least proposal) was also partly due to the participation of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition government, the Lib Dems being the party most committed not only to constitutional reform but also the use of referendums in general.

The results of referendums have had major consequences. This is unsurprising, as they tend to be on significant issues. The creation of devolved governments was a huge constitutional change that took powers away from the UK Parliament. Although it was thought that this would stem the rising tide of nationalism, in fact, it strengthened the support and influence of the Scottish National Party, whose __2011 __election win paved the way for the __2014 __independence referendum. Despite the result, the SNP has become even stronger electorally, culminating in the winning of 56 seats in the __2015 __election. The EU referendum result led to the resignation of the Prime Minister David Cameron, the election of Theresa May as Conservative leader, and the instillation of, in effect, a new government. The parties’ stances on Brexit have also had electoral consequences, not least the weakening of Labour’s traditional working class support in some areas.

Referendums, figure 1

Disadvantages of referendums

  1. May lead to ill-informed decisions, as the public may not know the specifics and consequences of a policy decision (unlike the government)
  2. Parliament is weakened, as sovereignty is undermined, so decisions are not made on the basis of careful discussion, debate and scrutiny
  3. Governments can absolve themselves of responsibility, meaning they make themselves less accountable
  4. Government could be strengthened- they decide the timing of referendums and can dominate the publicity campaign, meaning they could influence the result unfairly
  5. Referendums provide a ‘snapshot’ of public opinion at one time, so may not be the most reliable method of choosing a policy direction
Evaluate the extent to which referendums strengthen democracy. (30 marks)30 marks means three arguments for and three against.
Your answer should include: Democracy / Direct / Education / Power / Constitutional / Change / Ill-informed / Sovereignty / Responsibility