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THE HISTORY OF REFERENDUMS IN THE UK

Northern Ireland, 1973. This referendum was called in the hope of finding a solution to the growing violence in Northern Ireland. Voters in Northern Ireland only were asked whether they wished Northern Ireland to remain in the UK. The result was very much in favour, but large sections of the population refused to vote in the referendum, so it had limited impact. The British government did not agree to be bound by its findings.

Membership of the EU, 1975. Leading a government badly divided over membership of the EU (then known as the European Economic Community), Labour prime minister Harold Wilson called for the first major nation-wide referendum on whether the UK should remain a member. The verdict was that it should. The referendum ended party disunity on the matter for a while. Wilson was careful not to let the result be binding. It is unlikely that he (always a supporter of the EU) would have called for the referendum if he had thought he might lose it. There was a strong feeling among the opponents of the EU that the government propaganda machine was used unfairly to persuade people to vote to stay in. There was also criticism that the way in which the question was worded was designed to produce an answer in favour of staying in 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. There was limited support in Wales for it, and although the majority of those who voted for it in Scotland were in favour, the government decided that as those who voted in favour were less than 40 % of the total electorate, devolution had, in effect, been defeated. Even then the government had not agreed to be bound by the result. As a result, referendums became rather discredited in the eyes of the public. Again it was clear that the government would not have embarked on the referendum unless it had been fairly sure that devolution would not win.

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. On both issues they voted 'yes'. The Welsh were asked only one question about limited devolution. This time the government did agree to be bound by the results, and devolution has subsequently gone through. Here the government supported the measures, which had been in the Labour manifesto. But Tony Blair's government was anxious not to be seen as pushing through a huge constitutional change without consultation, just by using its huge parliamentary majority. The fact that Labour dominates the Scottish Parliament might be noted.

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. As many political leaders in Northern Ireland opposed the peace process, the referendum was seen as an appeal by the British (and Irish) government over the heads of the politicians and paramilitary leaders to the people. With a high turnout and more than a two-thirds majority in favour, this put real pressure on the political leaders of Northern Ireland to accept the Good Friday Agreement.



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. The result was positive, but the turnout was very low.

 

Some reading


Date: 2016-03-03; view: 145


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