Referenda, Put Simply

Referendums appear to have become increasingly popular in the political world. Since 1973 there have been eleven referendums held in the UK, ranging from issues of devolution to constitutional change.

What is a referendum?

In a referendum the electorate vote on a public issue or on specific questions. These votes tend to surround constitutional questions, moral issues and territorial issues. In essence, referendums act as a form of popular sovereignty and direct democracy. The Referendum process allows voters to essentially bypass political parties as they are consulted about major political decisions.

Arguments for referendums:

  1. One of the leading arguments for referendums is that they enhance the democratic process. Democracy fundamentally relies on the consent of the governed and as such voters should be consulted on major issues that directly affect them. This argument is illustrated by Professor Stephen Tierney, Professor of Constitutional Policy at Edinburgh University, as he notes that referendums could be seen as “‘pure democracy’ as they are unmediated by representatives; a reminder that democratic authority finds its legitimacy in the consent of the people. For example, the decision on the future of Britain’s membership in the European Union was taken by those who will be directly affected by it rather than being the result of closed-door negations conducted by political elites.
  2. Secondly, referendums can potentially increase political participation. Referendums naturally encourage public deliberation and as a result, they can enhance political involvement and reduce apathy. By focussing on a particular issue, the referendum process also promotes voter education as the electorate become more informed and politically aware. Following the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, membership of the Scottish National Party soared, increasing from 20,000 in 2013 to 100,000 within months of the No vote. Additionally, former First Minister Alex Salmond extended the referendum vote to 16 and 17-year-olds. While this decision may be perceived as a political tactic, it could be argued that the franchise was extended as the independence referendum would have inevitably affected future generations.
  3. Following on from this, another advantage of Referendums is that they can act as a check on Governments as they ensure that important decisions are only made with the consent of an overall majority. Therefore, Governments are forced to be more responsible as referendums require them to consider public opinion. Moreover, as referendums can transcend party politics they have the capacity to decide issues in a way that a general election cannot.

Arguments against referendums:

  1. Referendums are not necessarily binding due to the sovereignty of the British Parliament. Theoretically, the British Government could ignore a referendum result. The Brexit vote has called the effectiveness of referendums into question as there was no binding legal process to force the Government to invoke Article 50 and leave the European Union. During the recent vote to trigger Article 50 in parliament, a number of MP’s did not honour the referendum result and voted against the Brexit bill.
  2. The referendum process has also been criticised as it does not necessarily settle an issue. Former First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond once stated that the issue of Scottish Independence had been ‘settled for a generation’. However, his position drastically changed following the vote to Leave the European Union and a second Scottish independence referendum seems inevitable. Similarly, in the aftermath of Brexit, there were calls for a second European referendum to be held by those who voted to remain.
  3. Low turnout can also work against referendums and in some cases referendums may not be representative of popular sovereignty. For example, voter turnout in the 2011 British Alternative Vote referendum was only 42% and such a low turnout does not offer a clear reflection of public opinion. A low turnout in a referendum would, therefore, weaken the legitimacy of the result.

Further information and reading:


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