Referendums and how they are used

A referendum is the most common form of direct democracy and the one most people know about. Referendums tend to occur when an important decision is put to the people, rather than being determined by government .

Referendums can be binding ie the government must obey the result, but in the UK the results of referendums are not binding on government or Parliament. This is because Parliament is sovereign. However, it is almost unthinkable that Parliament would overturn a referendum decision which is why they can be seen to have weakened the authority of Parliament.

The first UK-wide referendum was held in 1975 on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Community (European Union). but they have been used many times. Here's a list:

  • 8 March 1973: held only in Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland (yes to remaining part of the UK)

  • 5 June 1975: UK – Membership of the European Community referendum on whether the UK should stay in the European Community (yes)

  • 1 March 1979: Scotland – Scottish devolution referendum on whether there should be a Scottish Assembly (40 per cent of the electorate had to vote yes in the referendum, although a small majority voted yes this was short of the 40 per cent threshold required to enact devolution)

  • 1 March 1979: Wales – Welsh devolution referendum on whether there should be a Welsh Assembly (no)

  • 11 September 1997: Scotland – Scottish devolution referenda on whether there should be a Scottish Parliament and whether the Scottish Parliament should have tax varying powers (both referendums received a yes vote)

  • 18 September 1997: Wales – Welsh devolution referendum on whether there should be a National Assembly for Wales (yes)

  • 7 May 1998: London – Greater London Authority referendum on whether there should be a Mayor of London and Greater London Authority (yes)

  • 22 May 1998: Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland Belfast Agreement referendum on the Good Friday Agreement (yes)

  • 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)

  • 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, first past the post will continue to be used to elect MPs to the House of Commons)

  • 18 September 2014: Scotland – referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country (no, the electorate voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent in favour of Scotland remaining within the UK.

  • A referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union took place on 23 June 2016, when the UK voted to leave the EU. (remain 48% Leave 52% Turnout 72%