The case for and against using referendums

For referendums

  • Referendums involve the people directly in decision-making on important issues which can be seen as coming close to the ideal of democracy- i.e. government 'by the people.' Referendums give the people the opportunity to exercise choice without having it modified or frustrated by politicians who think they know best. This is a popular idea when trust in politicians is low or when the legitimacy of institutions is in doubt.

  • They also proved the opportunity for a focussed decision. In a general election the people are expressing a view on a great many policy matters. The virtue of a referendum is that it enables a single issue to be isolated, so that an unambiguous popular verdict can be given. In any case some issues, such as the UK's membership of the EU, cut across party lines, with pro- and anti-EU politicians to be found in both major political parties, so a real choice cannot be given in a general election.

  • Referendums are a check on what the Conservative politician, Lord Hailsham, famously called the UK's 'elective dictatorship': the idea that executive dominance of the House of Commons gives it undue power, over which the electorate has control only once every five years. The holding of referendums between general elections gives the people an opportunity to have their say more frequently, and prevents the government from becoming remote and unaccountable.

  • Referendum can 'settle and issue by demonstrating clear public support for for something which was causing division.. The demonstration of support for the Scottish Parliament, and for the Northern Ireland peace process, has helped bring stability to the new institutions created in these parts of the UK.

  • In the absence of an entrenched constitution referendums can entrench reforms and protected them from being easily changed by a new government without another referendum. Transfers of power to the Welsh Assembly were approved by a referendum which also ensured their permanence.

  • Referendums raise voters' political awareness. The Scottish referendum in September 2014, for example, has been praised for giving an opportunity to air a wide range of issues related to independence. These included the likely impact of independence on the economy, the future of the nuclear deterrent based on the River Clyde, and Scotland's relationship with the EU. All of these topics were thoroughly debated during the campaign.

  • The conduct of referendums has been subject to independent supervision by the Electoral Commission since 2000. This reduces the chances that the result will be skewed as a result of unfair influence, since the expenditure of the competing sides is limited, and the wording of the referendum question is subject to review by an independent body.

Against referendums

  • Referendums undermine parliamentary sovereignty. Voters elect representatives to take difficult decisions on their behalf and more importantly to resist popular pressure for decision which they consider harmful. A majority of MPs including the PM and leaders of all the parties in Parliament, plus a majority of lading academics, economist and business leaders as well as union leaders believed that Britain should stay in the UK. Ordinary people lack the expertise to make decisions on complex questions.

  • If the arguments are not explained clearly to the public, popular participation may be low. This was a factor in the low turnout in the 2011 referendum on electoral reform. After the 2016 EU vote, the Electoral Commission reported that the arguments used by the leaders of both campaigns included a degree of distortion, and that there should be greater regulation of referendum campaigns to ensure that people receive a fair presentation of the arguments

  • Governments use referendums when it suits them and when they think they will win. Blair and Brown denied the electorate a say on the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, which extended the process of European integration, on the grounds that previous governments had not held popular votes on treaties. This caused outrage among the opposition, who maintained that voters had been denied a chance to vote on an agreement that transferred significant authority to the EU. In addition, governments sometimes hold referendums for their own political purposes - to defuse opposition, 1975 Referendum UK to overcome their own differences. There is an argument for greater regulation of the circumstances in which a referendum can be triggered.

  • Referendums tend to have low turnouts, the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. was an exception. Low turnouts limit the legitimacy of the decision. Turnout in the 1997 Welsh devolution vote, for example, was barely above 50 per cent, which cast a shadow over the new Assembly for some time.

  • Voters in referendums can be influenced by factors such as the popularity of the current government or fears of immigration. They can be a way of registering a protest against the government of the day. For example the defeat of the Alternative Vote proposal in the 2011 referendum was affected by the unpopularity of the Liberal Democrats.