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Referendums in the United Kingdom


Referendums in the United Kingdom

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
the United Kingdom

Referendums are occasionally held within the United Kingdom. The Government of the United Kingdom has held eleven referendums, the first in 1973; only two of these covered the whole UK. In addition, there have also been numerous referendums held by local authorities on issues such as Temperance and directly elected mayors.

The current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has promised a referendum on any further EU treaty that transfers any powers from the UK government to the European Union.

The most recent referendum to be held was the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September 2014.[1]

Status of referendums

Major referendums have been rare in the UK, and have always been on constitutional issues. Before Tony Blair's Labour government came to power in 1997, only four such referendums had been held.

There are two types of referendum that have been held by the UK Government, pre-legislative (held before proposed legislation is passed) and post-legislative (held after legislation is passed). Referendums are not legally binding, so legally the Government can ignore the results; for example, even if the result of a pre-legislative referendum were a majority of ‘No' for a proposed law, Parliament could pass it anyway, because parliament is sovereign.

Legally, Parliament at any point in future could reverse legislation approved by referendum because the concept of parliamentary sovereignty means no Parliament can prevent a future Parliament from amending/repealing legislation. However, it is unlikely many governments would attempt to reverse legislation approved by referendum as it would probably be controversial and potentially damaging to its popularity.

Finally, under the Local Government Act 1972, there is a little-known provision under which non-binding local referendums on any issue can be called by small groups of voters. This power exists only for parish councils, and not larger authorities, it is commonly known as the "Parish Poll". Six local voters may call a meeting, and if ten voters or a third of the meeting (whichever is smaller) agree, the council must carry out a referendum in 14–25 days. The referendum is merely advisory, but if there is a substantial majority and the results are well-publicised, it may be influential.[2]

Planned referendums

The Labour Government of 1997-2010 held five referendums on devolution, four of which received a yes majority. One concerning the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe was cancelled, given the French and Dutch rejections of the treaty. Another, on whether the UK should adopt the euro, was never held.

The Labour manifesto for the 1997 general election stated 'We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons.'[3] Despite the research carried out by the Jenkins Commission in 1998 suggesting an AV+ system for Westminster elections, the 2001 manifesto did not make such a promise. After the inconclusive 2010 General Election the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives formed a coalition. As part of the coalition agreement, both parties formally committed to holding a referendum on changes to the electoral system. The referendum was held on 5 May 2011 and was overwhelmingly defeated.

Since the Government of Wales Act 2006 became law, there can be referendums in Wales asking the people whether the National Assembly for Wales should be given greater law making powers. The Welsh Labour Party - Plaid Cymru Coalition Government in the Welsh Assembly held such a referendum in 2011, resulting in a yes vote.

The Scottish Government held a referendum on Scottish independence on 18 September 2014. It attracted a turnout of 84.59%, the highest for any referendum held in the UK.

The Conservative Party announced that they plan to hold a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union (following a renegotiation of powers between the UK & EU), in 2017. However, their Liberal Democrat coalition partners take an opposing stance so it is not Coalition Government policy. The Conservatives have attempted to pass the required legislation anyway as a Private Member's Bill (introduced by Conservative MP James Wharton), but this was not passed by the House of Lords. The bill has since been re-introduced to parliament and the Prime Minister has committed a future Conservative government (if the Conservative party wins a majority in 2015) to holding the referendum. The announcement has generated controversy.


Until 2000, there was no body to regulate referendums. In 2000, the government set out a framework for the running of future referendums when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 or PPERA was passed, giving the Electoral Commission responsibility for running referendums.

List of major referendums

Since 1973 there have been twelve referendums held by the Government of the United Kingdom, 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.

Minor (local) referendums

Since 1913, local referendums have been held in England, Wales and Scotland, covering temperance, directly elected mayors and transport issues.

Elected mayors in England and Wales

Thirty-seven local referendums have taken place in local authorities to establish whether there is support for directly elected mayors. Thirteen received a "Yes" majority and twenty-four a "No" majority. The highest turnout was 64% in Berwick-upon-Tweed (held alongside the 2001 general election) and the lowest was 10% in Ealing. On average, the turnout was similar to that of local elections.

The majority of those were held between June 2001 and May 2002—a further eight have been held since.

In 2008 a reorganisation of Stoke-on-Trent's system of local government required a further referendum; this abolished the post of Mayor.

"Yes" majority shown in green, "No" majority shown in red.

Source: Electoral Commission; Ceredigion County Council

Local authority Date Yes Votes Yes Vote % No Votes No Vote % Turnout %
Berwick-upon-Tweed 7 June 2001 3,617 26 10,212 74 64
Cheltenham 28 June 2001 8,083 33 16,602 67 32
Gloucester 28 June 2001 7,731 32 16,317 68 31
Watford 12 July 2001 7,636 52 7,140 48 25
Doncaster 20 September 2001 35,453 65 19,398 35 25
Kirklees 4 October 2001 10,169 27 27,977 73 13
Sunderland 11 October 2001 9,375 43 12,209 57 10
Brighton & Hove 18 October 2001 22,724 38 37,214 62 32
Hartlepool 18 October 2001 10,667 51 10,294 49 34
Lewisham 18 October 2001 16,822 51 15,914 49 18
Middlesbrough 18 October 2001 29,067 84 5,422 16 34
North Tyneside 18 October 2001 30,262 58 22,296 42 36
Sedgefield 18 October 2001 10,628 47 11,869 53 33
Redditch 8 November 2001 7,250 44 9,198 56 28
Durham 20 November 2001 8,327 41 11,974 59 29
Harrow 6 December 2001 17,502 43 23,554 57 26
Plymouth 24 Jan 2002 29,559 41 42,811 59 40
Harlow 24 Jan 2002 5,296 25 15,490 75 25
Newham 31 Jan 2002 27,263 68 12,687 32 26
Southwark 31 Jan 2002 6,054 31 13,217 69 11
West Devon 31 Jan 2002 3,555 23 12,190 77 42
Shepway 31 Jan 2002 11,357 44 14,438 56 36
Bedford 21 Feb 2002 11,316 67 5,537 33 16
Hackney 2 May 2002 24,697 59 10,547 41 32
Mansfield 2 May 2002 8,973 55 7,350 45 21
Newcastle-under-Lyme 2 May 2002 12,912 44 16,468 56 31.5
Oxford 2 May 2002 14,692 44 18,686 56 34
Stoke-on-Trent 2 May 2002 28,601 58 20,578 42 27
Corby 1 October 2002 5,351 46 6,239 54 31
Ealing 12 December 2002 9,454 45 11,655 55 10
Ceredigion 20 May 2004 5,308 27 14,013 73 36
Isle of Wight 5 May 2005 28,786 43.7 37,097 56.3 60.4
Torbay 15 July 2005 18,074 55.2 14,682 44.8 32.1
Crewe and Nantwich 4 May 2006 11,808 38.2 18,768 60.8 35.3
Darlington 27 Sept 2007 7,981 41.6 11,226 58.4 24.7
Stoke-on-Trent[4] 23 Oct 2008 14,592 41 21,231 59 19.23
Tower Hamlets 6 May 2010 60,758 60.3 39,857 39.7 62.1

Prohibition referendums

The Temperance (Scotland) Act 1913 provided that polls could be held in small local areas in Scotland to determine whether to instate a level of prohibition on the purchase of alcoholic beverages; the provisions were later incorporated into the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1959. Between 1913 and 1965 1,131 such polls were held, with the vast majority (1,079) held before 1930.[5] These provisions and the local polls were abolished by the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976.

The Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881 mandated that all public houses in Wales be closed on Sundays. The Act was extended to Monmouthshire in 1921. Under the terms of the Licensing Act 1961, on the application of 500 local electors, a referendum could be held in each local government area at seven-year intervals on whether that district should be "wet" or "dry" on the Sabbath. Most districts in the border area and the southern industrial area went "wet" in 1961 or 1968, with most others following suit in 1975. In 1982, the last district, Dwyfor, in western Gwynedd, went "wet" and it was thought that the influence of the Sabbatarian temperance movement had expired and few referendums were called, but surprisingly a further referendum was called in Dwyfor in 1989 and the area went "dry" for another seven years on a 9% turnout. The whole of Wales was "wet" from 1996, and the facility for further referendums was removed by the Sunday Licensing Act 2003.

Transport referendums

The City of Edinburgh Council held a postal-ballot referendum in February 2005 over whether voters supported the Council's proposed transport strategy. These plans included a congestion charge which would have required motorists to pay a fee to enter the city at certain times of the day. The result was announced on 22 February 2005 and the people of Edinburgh had rejected the proposals. 74% voted against, 26% voted in favour, and the turnout was 62%.

Parish polls

A parish poll is a referendum held in a civic parish under the Local Government Act 1972.[6] The cost of holding such polls is met by the parish council.[7]

"A poll may be demanded before the conclusion of a community meeting on any question arising at the meeting; but no poll shall be taken unless either the person presiding at the meeting consents or the poll is demanded by not less than ten, or one-third, of the local government electors present at the meeting, whichever is the less."[8]

In September 2007, villagers in East Stoke in Dorset forced a referendum, under the Local Government Act 1972, on this question: "Do You Want a Referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty? Yes or No?" Of the 339 people who were eligible to vote, 80 voted: 72 votes for Yes and 8 votes for No. The poll was initiated by a supporter of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party. The poll was criticised by the chairman of the parish council as "little more than a publicity stunt."[9][10]

See also


  1. ^ "Scotland to hold independence poll in 2014 - Salmond". BBC. 10 January 2012. Retrieved 10 January 2012. 
  2. ^ "Local". Retrieved 2010-05-09. 
  3. ^ "1997 Labour Party Manifesto". 1999-01-01. Retrieved 2010-05-09. 
  4. ^ The "Yes" column was for the option retaining the elected Mayor, the "No" option was for the option removing the position
  5. ^ "Temperance Polls (Hansard, 15 December 1965)". 1965-12-15. Retrieved 2010-12-04. 
  6. ^ Foggo, Daniel (1 October 2000). "Parishes reject euro by overwhelming margin". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Villagers back EU referendum call". BBC News. 2007-09-21. Retrieved 2010-05-09. 
  10. ^ [1]

External links

  • The Electoral Commission - Referendums
  • The Electoral Commission - Mayoral Referendums
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