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Kaye’s Political Debates: UK Referendums – A Constructive Bastion of Democracy?

A referendum is a form of direct democracy in which the electorate vote on a political matter deferred to them, given a binary ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ (or similar) option. In order to forensically analyse if UK referendums are a positive force in British politics, important factors to scrutinise include providing a judgement on government actions, stoking up debate, and their frequency. The following will question the validity of the claim that referendums act as a “constructive bastion” of democracy.  


One way in which referendums can be seen as constructive is in their ability to provoke debate.

EU referendum
The 2016 European Union debate had a great amount of coverage. The Great Debate featured voices from the likes of Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan. Figures such as David Cameron and Nigel Farage too had vast media coverage. (Photo courtesy of Time)

Politically, referendums project the media spotlight onto important policies and matters, giving them relevant attention and scrutiny. For example, 1975’s referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Economic Community led to a heavily-covered campaign which saw televised debates such as one displaying the contrasting standpoints of political powerhouses former prime minister Edward Heath and Michael Foot; such broadcasts drew up to 20 million viewers. Both sides saw large-scale coverage with prominent figures on both sides such as Enoch Powell on the ‘No’ (leaving the EEC) campaign and Roy Jenkins on the ‘Yes’ (remaining in the EEC).

Elsewhere, the European Union debate in 2016 saw an extensive debate, with figures such as UKIP leader Nigel Farage referencing sovereignty and Respect’s George Galloway discussing the democratic deficit – arguments that had laid rather dormant in mainstream politics for decades. The argument also went far beyond politics and saw the involvements of figures from various different international industries involved on both sides of the debate, indicating how referendums serve to shine a light on topical and relevant political issues, highlighting referendums’ positive role in promoting political debate.

Yet, a critique of the role of the increased debate is arguably overtly influential media. For example, during the 2016 EU referendum, The Sun ran a front-page story stating “Queen Backs Brexit: EU going in wrong direction she says,” a headline ruled “misleading” by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. Many too were misled by campaign features such as Boris Johnson’s infamous NHS bus claim, shaping misinformed opinions on the matter and thus creating insufficient debate.

There can also be an issue over a lack of debate, as with the 1975 referendum where The Morning Star was the only notable daily newspaper backing the ‘No’ campaign whilst figures such as Tony Benn were ridiculed by right-wing and even Labour-supporting publications, giving minimal scope for sufficient debate. 

Another argument in favour of British referendums is that it allows the electorate to deliver a judgement on government policies.

Referendums serve as a way for the public to give confidence, display apathy, or show opposition to government policies whilst it can also be used to tentatively dictate the direction of policy going forward. For example, the 2011 Welsh devolution referendum, allowing the Welsh Assembly (now the Senedd) to attain primary legislative powers, saw nearly two-thirds support at 63.5%, a vote of confidence in the New Labour project of Welsh devolution, especially since the initial 1997 vote had only just pushed past 50%. A 1994 referendum held in Strathclyde, Scotland determined the popularity of water privatisation in England and Wales in 1989. 97% of voters rejecting proposals for water privatisation, influencing the government away from dipping its toe into Scottish water privatisation plans. Consequently, this indicates how referendums are “constructive” in formulating government policy, evidence of referendums as important within UK politics. Problematically however, referendums are non-binding so the government is under no obligation to follow the results; the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum saw 52% support but a stipulation noted only if it was 40% of the total electorate – not turnout – would the results be put into force. Moreover, the book A History of British Elections Since 1689 argues that the 1973 Northern Ireland referendum, on whether Ireland should remain in the UK or unite with the Republic of Ireland, was “somewhat meaningless” due to Catholic abstention and “more of a party ploy than a real attempt to seek out the views of the people.” 

In a similar vein, referendums have also served to legitimise decisions, providing the government with a mandate for action.

The Independent
The 1998 Good Friday referendum provided legitimacy to the efforts of those figures who had a hand in signing it. (Photo courtesy of The Independent)

It is more legitimate for a matter to face the Great British public, who will be living under these rules, rather than in Parliament, decided on by only 650 Members of Parliament. Described by the constitutionalist A.V. Dicey as “the people’s veto”, referendums offer the chance for the people to have their voices heard. For example, the aforementioned 1975 referendum finally put the public seal of approval on Britain joining the EEC which had been signed into law without public vote in 1973 under the Treaty of Accession. After a decisive 2:1 ‘Yes’ vote to remain, ‘No’ campaigner Tony Benn remarked:

“When the British people speak, everyone, including members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision and that’s certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of the referendum.”

Plus, the 1998 Good Friday referendum was an overwhelming vote of confidence in the freshly-signed deal, making the deal agreed upon by more than just the signees but also the Northern Irish electorate. As a result, this implies that referendums have a grave purpose in British politics, serving to legitimise legislation, and providing the government with a mandate from the British electorate. Yet, gifting the vote to the public has seen criticism for undermining parliamentary sovereignty. Acts of Parliament are supposedly sovereign and yet the public still holds the authority to reject legislation.

This electorate is one far less educated on political matters, as noted by Richard Dawkins during the 2016 EU referendum:

“It is an outrage that people as ignorant as me are being asked to vote. This is a complicated matter of economics, politics, and history, and we live in a representative democracy not a plebiscite democracy…This should be a matter for parliament.”

Yet, to counter-argue, the constitutionalist Vernon Bogdanor has claimed that it would be

“illusory to believe that you can confine legislative matters solely to parliamentarians.” 

Fourthly, referendums give residents the opportunity to participate at a local level.

Referendums can take place at a local level in cities and regions, allowing occupants, who have the best knowledge of and insight into local issues, to be able to determine policy. An example includes the hosting of a referendum in the North-East in 2004 which saw the citizens of Cheshire, County Durham, Cumbria, Lancashire, North Yorkshire, and Northumberland vote on whether to establish a North-Eastern devolved government, with proposals rejected by 78%.

Meanwhile, in 2012, a spate of local mayoral referendums saw some cities such as Bristol opt for a mayor whilst other cities such as Birmingham rejected such a project; both local referendums encouraged political participation at a local level. Comparatively, in the USA, state-wide referendums are held, with the US Constitution’s Tenth Amendment allowing for ‘states rights’ in which political matters are delegated to each state in a system known as federalism.

Notable American referendums include a 1976 Colorado referendum in which voters rejected Olympic funding over environmental concerns, effectively forcing the Olympic Games to relocate for the first time a chosen host has declined to host the event as well as a 2022 referendum in Kansas amidst the aftermath of the overturn of Roe v Wade in which the state voted by nearly 60% to protect abortion rights. However, the ability of the public to make such rulings is hard to determine, especially since referendums have often been referred to as ‘blunt instruments’ that offer a binary ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. 


Yet there too are compelling arguments on the other side of the fence that advocate that referendums are less than a “constructive bastion of democracy.”  

Conversely, going against the statement is the fact that referendums can feature low turnouts.

Evening Standard
The 1998 Greater London Authority referendum saw a low turnout of 35%. A lukewarm amount of support for such a move, with Ken Livingstone becoming the first Mayor of London in 2000. (Photo courtesy of The Evening Standard)

Various referendums have seen low turnouts over the years, suggesting that referendums do not aid democracy, not aiding participation. For instance, the 2011 nationwide referendum on the implementation of the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system had an apathetic turnout of 42% whilst the 1998 Greater London Authority referendum’s turnout barely passed a third at 34.6%.

It should be noted however that some referendums such as the Good Friday Agreement had a turnout of 81%, reflecting how turnout is often driven by the matter at hand rather than a trend universal for all Uk referendums.

Conversely, elections generally tend to have a higher turnout than referendums yet in 2015, the general election had a turnout below two-thirds of the electorate; the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum had an 85% turnout (the highest turnout of any referendum or election in the post-universal suffrage era) and the 2016 EU referendum had over 70%, demonstrating how turnout is not always low, with referendums both side of the 2015 election having greater participation rates. There is some evidence to the claim that referendums cause low turnouts albeit subject to the issue on which the referendum has been deferred. 

Furthermore, referendums often fall short of their goal of resolving political questions.

Although the purpose of referendums is to provide an answer to contentious and important matters, it is questionable to what extent referendums have settled such issues. For example, the 1979 Scottish devolution saw the majority of voters vote for a devolved government but due to the 40% of the electorate stipulation, the motion was not passed and only settled after the 1997 referendum on the same subject.

Remaining in Scotland, although in 2014 Scottish independence was shot down by a surprisingly wide 55-45% margin on a large turnout, the issue of Scottish independence is still far from settled. In 2015, just a year after shutting down independence, the committed nationalist party the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) won 56/59 seats in the Holyrood-based Scottish Assembly. In the face of the UK Supreme Court’s rejection of a second referendum and the Westminster-based government’s rejection of Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, the debate for the so-called indyref2 seem far from dead, proving how the original failed to solve the matter for good. Thus, the effectiveness of referendums can be questioned, as not always sufficient in being able to resolve crucial political matters. 

Moreover, referendums are arguably not a “bastion of democracy”, often called for dubious reasons.

Part of the reason for the 1975 EEC referendum was to quell inter-Cabinet conflict over the issue, which included a televised debate between Labour’s Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn. (Photo courtesy of BBC)

Rather than legitimately give UK citizens a say, referendums have also been called for reasons perhaps questionable. The 1975 EEC referendum is an example of such: Harold Wilson had initially rejected a referendum on the EEC, seeing it as “un-British,” a sentiment echoed in newspapers of the time with The Sun calling it a “constitutional monstrosity” and The Times pointed out:

“the referendum has been used as a means of pseudo-democratic dialogue by dictators.”

Even politicians on both sides of the aisle such as Margaret Thatcher and Roy Jenkins were sceptical of the use of such a democratic tool. Nonetheless, one was held, but rather due to the fear his divided Cabinet would implode than to give the public a say, with the split on the issue best illustrated by a televised debate between Cabinet ministers Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn. Biographer Ben Pimlott notes:

“[Wilson] knew that if he brought Britain out, Roy Jenkins and his followers would be off – yet if he stayed in, he would offend Benn, Shore and Silkin.”

Another referendum called for reasons undermining direct democracy was in 2016 with the EU referendum, In The Cameron Years documentary, notable Eurosceptic Ian Duncan Smith states how he thinks David Cameron held the referendum when he did not to give citizens a fair say but rather as he thought he could win. In Cameron’s case more than Wilson’s, the failure of a contentious referendum can have dire consequences, as illustrated by the 2016 EU referendum defeated the government’s desires 52%-48%. As such, the use of referendums is not always democratic, illustrating how they can serve as less than a “bastion” of UK democracy.  

Another problem with referendums that hinders their democratic use is their rarity.

For example, in 2005, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw stated that the UK electorate would get a referendum over a European Constitutional Treaty although eventually dropped; by 2007, with the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon, Gordon Brown declared the issue was done for and not face a vote due to the complex nature and length of the treaty, a decision labelled “monstrous” by a then-largely unknown Nigel Farage. Since the first in 1975, there have only been two other nationwide referendums, showing how little, they are used on a wide scale.

Referendums lay large dormant throughout the Conservative administration 1979-1997 as well as since 2016. The reason for the absence of referendums perhaps includes the cost, with the Electoral Commission confirming the 2016 referendum cost £129 million in taxpayer money, whilst using that same referendum, we can still the hectic fallout – causing both prime minister David Cameron and eventually Theresa May’s resignations – that can be caused by an unexpected and significant result.

This implies that referendums are not truly democratic, held only on rare occasions, giving the UK citizenry limited scope to truly influence policy. Yet, it can be argued that the rarity can be beneficial as referendums can cause a tyranny of the majority, including on issues Parliament managed to effectively pass without public vote such as same-sex marriage and the Equality Act, to name a few from the 21st century.  


To conclude, it is largely – albeit not completely – accurate to state that referendums are a “bastion of democracy.” Able to give the Great British electorate a say over government policy, they serve as an effective form of direct democracy in which those citizens who live in the country get a voice in how it is run. Although the system of representative government functions mostly effectively, referendums give people a more direct way in which they can participate in the political sphere.

Although referendums do undoubtedly have drawbacks as discussed in the above piece, referendums do largely supply a purpose in British politics, democratically improving the relationship between the electorate and the work done at Westminster. As such, it would be entirely unfair, unjust, and misleading to say that referendums are unequivocally not “constructive” and a “bastion of democracy.” 


Griffin Kaye is a contributing writer for Lace 'Em Up. He is a life-long pro wrestling fan and has written on comedy, music, history, politics, and TV. He can be reached by e-mail at GriffinKaye1@hotmail.com, on Twitter @GriffinKaye1, as well as on Instagram at @TheGriffinKaye.

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