Should Britain banish referendums?

by John Curtice

16 Feb 2017

Many a MP currently finds themselves in a dilemma. Most wanted the UK to remain in the EU. Yet they have now been invited to pass legislation to implement the decision of a majority of voters in June 2016's referendum to leave. A number have agonised that they were elected to the Commons as 'representatives' rather than 'delegates'. The notion that parliament is 'sovereign' has inevitably been challenged too.

Is it then time to call time on the referendum in order to preserve and protect Britain’s representative democracy? After all, until 1973 referendums were more or less only used to decide whether pubs should be allowed to open on a Sunday. Yet during the last forty years or so no less than 13 'major' referendums have been held, while local ballots have become more commonplace too.

There are three key issues to address:

  1. Have referendums been used appropriately?

  2. Have referendums been effective?

  3. Are voters capable of playing their role?


One feature of the 'major' referendums held in the UK to date is that they have all been about the country’s constitutional arrangements. Ten have been about how one particular part of the UK should be governed. The remaining three have comprised two referendums on the UK's membership of the EU, while the third was about how MPs should be elected. There have also been 59 local referendums on introducing a directly elected mayor.

There is good reason why referendums might be used to determine major constitutional questions. Democratic government requires the consent of the governed, and so voters' approval should be sought when it is suggested new institutions should be created. A positive vote also helps underpin the legitimacy and authority of any new institutions. Meanwhile, should the politicians who have most to gain and lose from any proposed constitutional change be left to decide the rules under which they attain and exercise power?

However referendums in the UK have largely been ad hoc affairs. Only occasionally, as in the the 2011 European Union Act, has an attempt has been made to stipulate when a referendum should be held. The decision to hold a referendum (or not) has often seemed the product of political convenience – taken to resolve internal party or governmental disagreement or to avoid electoral difficulty.


If referendums are to lend legitimacy to the way in which the country is governed, we might expect them to resolve the issue at stake, with little or no need for it to be revisited. This has not been Britain's experience.

Last June's ballot was the UK's second referendum on EU membership. Both Scotland and Wales have held three referendums on how they should be governed, while Northern Ireland has held two. Meanwhile, although a majority voted against independence, the 2014 referendum in Scotland witnessed a substantial increase in support for leaving the UK, such that there is now serious discussion about holding a second independence ballot.

Meanwhile, even when a referendum has been held, further changes have sometimes still been made. Substantial changes have been made to the devolution settlements in both Scotland and Wales without further reference to voters. Past referendum results have also seemingly been ignored.  The current government is creating 'city regions' headed by directly elected mayors, even though many of the cities in question have previously voted against having a directly elected mayor.


If referendums are to demonstrate the ‘will of the people’, voters need to turn out in sufficient numbers for the outcome to be accepted as a valid representation of that 'will'. Voters should also cast their ballots on the basis of the issue at stake, rather than, for example, simply cast a protest vote against the government or follow the advice of the party they normally support.

Turnout in UK referendums has often been disappointingly low. In four cases it was below 50%. Only a handful of mayoral referendums have secured the participation of much more than one in three voters. On the other hand, the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 secured a 85% turnout, while the 72% turnout in last year's EU referendum was six points above that in the 2015 general election.

But what really matters is whether voters who backed the losing option in a referendum were less likely to have voted, thereby raising questions about the validity of the outcome. The result of the 1973 Northern Ireland border poll was certainly skewed but not altered by a boycott by the nationalist community. Survey evidence suggests that those who wanted the UK to leave the EU were more likely to have voted last June than those who wished to remain – but probably not by enough to overturn the result. However, there may be a bigger question mark about the outcome of the 1979 Welsh Referendum, when only just over 50% voted in favour of devolution on little more than a 50% turnout.

However, recent referendums suggest voters can disregard the advice of their party and vote on the basis of how they see the issues at stake.  In the EU referendum none of the parties apart from UKIP was able to persuade much more than two-thirds of their supporters to vote in line with their recommendation. In the Scottish independence referendum around one in three Labour supporters voted in favour of independence, contrary to the party's stance. Meanwhile, in both cases voters' choices clearly reflected their view of the economic consequences of the proposed change. Nearly everyone who thought that Scotland's economy would suffer as a result of independence voted No, while nearly everyone who reckoned the UK economy would be weakened by leaving the EU voted to Remain.


There is a class of decisions – about the constitutional rules and institutional arrangements under which power is attained and exercised – when referendums can have a proper role to play. It is certainly not clear that voters are any less capable of taking such decisions than politicians who often have a vested interest in the issue.

Yet perhaps there should be some rules about when referendums should be held. At the moment, the decision is left almost entirely to the discretion – and thus the political convenience – of politicians. One such rule might be that a referendum should only be held to endorse or reject a proposed change. One of the distinctive features of both the EU referendums was that voters were invited to endorse or reject the status quo rather than a proposal for change. As a result, what would happen if the status quo were to be rejected was not spelt out, leaving the country left debating exactly what it had just been voted for last June.

Even so, we should not expect too much of referendums. They cannot be expected to resolve divisive issues for ever and a day. Meanwhile the issue on the ballot paper does need to matter to voters if their participation is to be secured. But ultimately there is nobody better qualified to decide how citizens should be governed than citizens themselves.

Sir John Curtice is Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde and a Fellow of the British Academy.

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