Referendum – is a vote in which the electorate decides an issue by answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a question. Certain issues are so important that they cannot be left to elected politicians. This element of direct democracy is believed to be 'reconnecting' ordinary people with politics. Having actively participated in a referendum, people will take far more notice of the real issues at election time. Three are three types of referendums: advisory, binding and initiatives. Referendums that were already held in the UK are:
Northern Ireland, 1973. This referendum was called in the hope of finding a solution to the growing violence in Northern Ireland.
Membership of the EU, 1975. Leading a government badly divided over membership of the EU.
Devolution for Scotland and Wales, 1979. Partly as the price for keeping the Liberals' support for his minority Labour government, prime minister James Callaghan agreed to have a referendum in Scotland and Wales (the English were not consulted) on whether there should be devolution for Scotland and Wales.
Devolution for Scotland and Wales, 1997. Voters in Scotland were asked two questions. The first was whether they wanted a Scottish Parliament and the second was whether they wanted the Scottish Parliament to have tax-varying powers.
Northern Ireland, 1998. This had two purposes: first, to get support for the Northern Ireland peace process; and second, to get endorsement for devolved powers to Northern Ireland and end the direct rule of Northern Ireland from London.
The mayor of London, 1998. This referendum asked the people of London if they wanted an elected mayor with powers to deal with certain aspects of London as a whole, such as transport.
Recent referendum on Devolution for South East 2004
Future referendums on the single European currency Euro and EU Constitution
How do referendums differ from elections?
Referendum – is a vote in which the electorate decides an issue by answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a question. Elections are held in order to elect those representatives who will decide on these issues and if necessary held these referendums later.
There is no fixed date when the referendums should be held. The government sets the questions whenever it is necessary to ask people’s opinion on these issues. On the other hand, elections should be held in the period of 5 years.
The result of the election is always decisive, whereas the result obtained in the referendum is not always considered as final. Governments sometimes go back again and again until they get the result that they want, as it happened with devolution in Scotland.
Why have referendums been used more widely in recent years?
What are the advantages of referendums?
Make a case for a wider use of referendums.
Referendums offer a greater degree of 'direct democracy'. Citizens can have a real input into key decisions.
They encourage political participation. People are more likely to participate when they care about the issues involved and the choices are black and white. They involve citizens in major issues that affect their whole lives.
Major constitutional changes should not take place without a vote of those who will be most affected.
They provide a way for governments to 'test the water' before making certain changes.
They allow government to focus on other issues, rather than getting bogged down in long-running squabbles.
They can be used to provide a clear and final answer.
They can prevent dangerous divisions within political parties over controversial issues. This prevents governments from collapsing and, therefore, provides greater continuity in government. They can end controversy on highly divisive issues
They can be used to overcome obstacles, such as happened in Northern Ireland in 1998
They provide a way of focusing or renewing the mandate on a particular issue. They give government consent for a specific action.
They provide a method for resolving tricky moral questions.
They provide a way of legitimising major constitutional changes.