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Last updated 22 Mar 2021
A REFERENDUM is where the electorate vote on a specific question, or questions. This makes it different to an election, where the electorate vote for a representative, and where the result might change the government. The legislative refers the question to the electorate. The question is usually designed to receive a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. The older term for a referendum is a PLEBISCITE. Examples of referendums held in the UK include the 1975 referendum on remaining in the EU and the 1998 referendum in Northern Ireland to ratify the ‘Good Friday Agreement’.
Americans use the term PROPOSITION. For example, in 1998 California voted to make English the first language in school, and in 1999 Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Nevada voted to decriminalise the use of cannabis for medical purposes and Hawaii voted to ban same-sex marriage.
An INITIATIVE is a referendum which is called for by the electorate. The electorate “takes the initiative”, not the legislative. Usually, a certain number of signatures have to be obtained on a petition to authorise an initiative. Initiatives are important in Switzerland and California, where they allow laws to be passed directly, perhaps over the heads of the politicians. An example of an initiative is California’s 1978 “Proposition 13”, which halved property taxes, or the 2009 initiative in Switzerland banning the further building of minarets. However, initiatives have not been used in the UK, except in parts of Wales. (An Act of 1974 permits their use on the question of Sunday Opening of Pubs).
Both referendums and initiatives are rare examples of DIRECT DEMOCRACY in modern political systems.
Conservative Governments haven’t encouraged referendums. They have believed that MPs should be free to make up their minds on major issues without asking constituents – that it’s the job of politicians to make political and economic decisions.
That said – the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum was granted by the Conservative government (Alex Salmond’s SNP had won an outright majority in the Scottish elections 2011 on a manifesto including a commitment to having an IN/OUT referendum, but still needed the Westminster government to create the referendum).
The Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 election contained a commitment to hold an IN/OUT referendum on EU membership. This was something David Cameron announced in 2013 in response to pressure from UKIP and from right-leaning Conservative MPs. The referendum date as yet hasn’t been announced, but is likely to be end of 2016/start of 2017. There was an attempt during the 2010-2015 Parliament to legislate for the referendum definitely to happen – but that was not possible as one Parliament cannot bind future governments.
The advantages of referendums include the direct democratic element of them, the constitutional check they provide on a government, how they stimulate interest and involvement in public policy, provide a single, clear answer to a specific question in a way general elections cannot, and force policy makers to explain their proposals.
Disadvantage of referendums include that it is not clear whether they are consultative or binding on a government, and if binding, for how long; how the timing and wording and funding of the referendum is so important to the outcome; how it is difficult to agree what level of turnout constitutes consent and whether a 50% result implies consent, and the ‘tyranny of the majority’ that results from 50.01% of the electorate being able to make constitutional changes that the other 49.99% may not want; how the prospect of a referendum can cause political and economic uncertainty; the problem of an irrational electorate; and how the government of the day may use the referendum for political ends.