United Kingdom



By Prof. Richard Rose, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow


A. Historical context

The tradition of parliamentary government in England stretches back to the 13th century; however, for more than five centuries Members of the House of Commons represented places rather than people. In his 1774 Speech to the Electors of Bristol Edmund Burke declared that an MP’s duty was to vote in accord with his judgment rather than as the representative of his constituents’ opinions. The late nineteenth century introduction of a competitive party system and MPs voting along party lines has made parties centrally important for representation. Electoral reform begun in 1832 culminated in 1928 when all men and women gained the right to vote. Thus, representative democracy was for long the exclusive form of British parliamentary government.

Initial calls for a referendum on a major political issue were made in the 1880s by A.V. Dicey in the belief that a majority of voters would reject any Irish Home Rule bill approved by a majority of Mps. No bill was enacted and no referendum held. Liberal government legislation in 1911 removed the House of Lords as a check on the House of Commons. Conservatives unsuccessfully advocated the introduction of referendums in hopes that popular majorities would replace the Lords as a check on liberal reforms. The doctrine of parliament as repreenting social groups rather than individuals was strengthened by the collapse of the Liberal Party and rise of the Labour Party as a party of collective class interests. Referendums were dismissed as an alien violation of constitutional practice associated with nazism and fascism (Bogdanor, 1981: 35).

B. Section on explicitly EU referendums

The first United Kingdom referendum was called in 1975 to resolve conflicts within major parties about European Union membership. The Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, secured parliamentary approval of UK membership in Europe in 1973 in divisions that split both parties. However, the Labour Party, then in opposition, became committed to a referendum on membership in the hope it would result in both pro and anti-EU Mps accepting the result as binding.

The 1975 vote on UK membership produced a two-to-one majority in favour of maintaining EU membership. There was a majority in all four nations of the United Kingdom: 68.7 percent in England, 66.5 percent in Wale, 58.5 4 percent in Scotland and 52.1 percent in Northen Ireland. Notwithstanding intra-party divisions, Conservative, Labour and Liberal leaders each endorsed voting in favour of the EU. MPs saw to it that referendum voting was not reported by each parliamentary constituency, thereby preventing between an MP’s position on the EU and that of a majority of their constituents. Results were reported by 68 regions averaging just over nine Mps. Regardless of the predominance of Conservative or Labour voters, a majority in favour of EU membership was returned in every electoral region except for two Scottish islands. Both winners and losers accepted the outcome as final (Butler and Kitzinger, 1976).

Choice Votes Percent
Yes 17,378,581 67.23%
No 8,470,073 32.77%
Vaild votes 25,848,654 99.78%
Invalid or blank votes 54,540 0.22%
Total votes 25,903,194 100.00%
Registered voters and turnout 40,086,677 64.67%

Although the United Kingdom government actively pursued its national interests in European Union deliberations their leaders sought to insulate EU policymaking from national politics. Moreover, both elites and public opinion gave more attention to the UK’s special relationship with the United States and its global links with Commonwealth countries that were formerly colonies (Young, 1998). The UK debate on the Maastricht Treaty re-opened intra-party divisions. The Conservative government secured parliamentary approval of it in 1992 by only three votes. Before the 1997 British general election Conservative prime minister John Major promised a referendum on whether the UK should adopt the euro and the Labour Opposition leader, Tony Blair, matched this commitment. Opposition to euro membership by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, meant that the Labour government never sought to join the eurozone.

The Labour government of Tony Blair matched the readiness of nine other EU member states to hold a referendum on the draft European Constitution. It did not have to call a vote since the document fell when rejected in French and Dutch referendums. The Labour government followed other member states in rejecting a commitment to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The House of Commons approved the Lisbon Treaty by a large majority in March 2008, but David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative opposition, gave a ‘cast-iron guarantee’ that a Conservative government would hold a referendum that could reject the proposed treaty. In the 2009 election of Members of the European Parliament, the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party came second to the Conservatives and in the 2014 election it came first.

Once all member states had ratified the Lisbon Treaty, Cameron announced that a Conservative government would not call a referendum to withdraw the UK’s approval and accept it as a fait accompli. This was balanced by a promise that a Conservative government would enact a law requiring a UK referendum on any substantial transfer of UK powers to the EU whether in a new treaty or by the extension of powers within a Treaty, for which the UK would not have a veto. After it won control of the prime ministership in the 2010 general election, the pledge was implemented in the 2011 European Union Act. Conservative backbench Mps then began agitating for the government to reduce the influence of the EU on Britain; a 2011 parliamentary motion secured 111 votes calling for a referendum on EU membership.

In 2013 David Cameron made a commitment to seek a fundamental review of the UK’s relation with Europe if he won the next election and put the issue of EU membership to an In/Out referendum vote (Shipman, 2017). The Conservative Party won an absolute majority of Mps at the 2015 election and the government introduced a bill to hold an In/Out referendum. Since the proposal had been included in its election manifesto, pro-EU Mps and members of the House of Lords offered amendments to the bill but could not muster votes to defeat what became the 2016 European Union Referendum Act. Concurrently, Cameron began negotiating terms to repatriate powers. As this violated the EU principle of the acquis communitaire, the concessions he received were limited and viewed as such by UK public opinion, and especially Conservatives.

In the 2016 referendum campaign on EU membership, the only parties unambiguously favouring remaining in the EU were the third and fourth parties in the House of Commons, the Scottish Nationals and the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative Party organisation was neutral while Cabinet ministers campaigned on opposing sides. The Labour Party was nominally in favour of remaining in the EU but its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, gave only a weak endorsement. UKIP, led by Nigel Farage, campaigned vigorously for exit. The statutory obligation on the broadcasting authorities gave equal time to both causes in the same programme, by contrast with the narrowcasting of print media (Moore and Ramsay, 2017).

The EU referendum vote on 29 June 2016 produced an arithmetically narrow but politically decisive majority for Brexit, that is, leaving the European Union. A majority in England and Wales voted to leave the EU while a majority in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. In England a majority of regions in the South and North voted to leave, with the exception of London, 59.9 percent. In Scotland 62.0 percent voted to remain and in Northern Ireland, 55.9 percent (House of Commons Briefing, 2016). Up to a point the units reporting votes matched parliamentary constituencies and results estimated for all the remaining constituencies (Hanratty, 2016). In 64 percent of Labour-held seats, majorities voted to leave the EU, while a majority of their parliamentary representatives voted to remain a member. In seats represented by Conservative Mps, 75 percent voted to leave the EU. Exit polls found that a majority of people who had voted Conservative in 2015 voted to leave the EU while a majority of Labour voters favoured remaining. A decisive factor was the failure of the pro-EU prime minister to mobilize support for the EU within his own party. Pro-Brexit Conservatives outnumbered pro-Brexit UKIP voters by a majority of three to one (Rose, 2017; Clarke, Goodwin and Whiteley, 2017). Within hours after the result was announced, David Cameron resigned as prime minister.

Choice Votes Percent
Leave the European Union 17,410,742 51.89%
Remain a member of the European Union 16,141,241 48.11%
Valid votes 33,551,983 99.92%
Invalid or blank votes 25,359 0.08%
Total votes 33,577,342 100.00%
Registered voters and turnout 46,500,001 72.21%
Voting age population and turnout 51,356,768 65.38%

[Source: Electoral Commission]

Conflicting Conservative groups agreed to the unopposed election of Theresa Ma as prime minister because she committed herself to the ambiguous pledge to ensure that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, that is, she would seek to implement the referendum decision to cease EU membership. She formally invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union committing the UK to become a non-member of the EU by 29 March 2019. Encouraged by a surge in opinion polls, May called a snap election in June, 2017 in hopes of securing a personal mandate strong enough to command personal support from all sides of a party divided on what Brexit means. Her strategy failed: the Conservatives lost their majority but remained the largest party in the House of Commons. May remained in Downing Street with little authority over Conservative Mps and vulnerable to parliamentary defeat on Brexit measures.

The Conservative government is now divided between hard and soft Brexiters. Hard Brexiters want no or minimal obligations to the EU’s courts, budgets and policies after becoming an ex-EU member state. Soft Brexiters, are prepared to accept some obligations in exchange for maintaining benefits of the single market, the free movement of people and an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The prime minister has stated that no deal about future relations with the EU (colloquially, falling off a cliff) is preferable to onerous soft Brexit terms. Soft Brexiters are divided between those who want to maximize the economic advantages and will pay a fair cost and those who believe a second referendum should be held on whether to accept the conditions of Brexit once terms are known. The prime minister would like to appease both groups in her own party but could end up alienating both or siding with one against the other.

In recent decades the British government has called more referendums than in more than half a millennium of parliamentary and representative government (See Rallings and Thrasher, 2012: chapter 22). As a condition of the Liberals joining a coalition government with the Conservatives, a UK referendum was held in 2011 on replacing the established first past the post electoral system with an Australian-style alternative vote. The coalition parties endorsed opposing positions. On a turnout of 42.0 percent, a change in the electoral system was rejected by 67.9 percent of referendum voters. In England referendums on local and regional political institutions have been held since 1998.

A surge in support for Nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales in 1974 elections led the Labour minority government to introduce devolution bills for Scotland and Wales. Opponents believed the bills were not a response to popular demands and forced referendums in both nations. On 1 March 1979 a total of 79.7 percent voters in Wales rejected devolution on a turnout of 58.3 percent. In Scotland approval was given by 51.6 percent. Although the turnout was 63.0 percent it dd not meet the unique requirement that it had to be 40 percent of the registered electorate. The positive vote was only 32.8 percent of the electorate, thus rejecting devolution. Following major changes in British politics, in 1997 the Labour government called a Scottish referendum in advance of promoting a devolution act; the principle was endorsed by 74.3 of Scots voters on a turnout of 60.2 percent. In a parallel referendum in Wales 50.3 percent endorsed further devolution on a turnout of 50.1 percent and in a 2011 Welsh referendum lawmaking powers for the Welsh National Assembly received approval by 63.5 percent of Welsh voters.

The Scottish independence referendum on 18 September 2014 was of EU significance because withdrawal from the United Kingdom would make an issue of Scotland’s qualification as a part of the European Union. In a ballot with an extraordinary turnout of 84.6 percent of the electorate, a majority of 55.3 percent voted in favour of remaining in the UK, while 44.7 percent endorsed Scottish independence (McHarg et al., 2016). From its position as the head of devolved government institutions, the SNP interpreted the Brexit referendum as a sufficiently important change in UK governance to justify a second independence referendum. Against the views of the UK government, introduced a referendum bill in the Scottish Parliament. However, the loss of votes and Mps in the 2017 UK general election has led the SNP to put another independence referendum on hold until conditions for winning an independence vote become more favourable.

The abolition of the devolved Stormont Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1971 effectively removed the means of meeting the UK Parliament’s statutory commitment that no change in its border would occur without the conssent of its representatives.. In an attempt to pacify the Unionist majority a referendum was held in 1973 asking the Northern Ireland electorate whether they wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom or be joined with the Republic of Ireland. Given that the electorate was predominantly Protestant and Unionist, the outcome was foreordained. Pro-Irish Republic parties called on their supporters to boycott the vote, a policy that could readily be enforced by the then active Irish Republic Army. The result was a turnout of the order of 90 percent of the Protestant electorate and 58.7 percent of the total electorate. A total of 98.9 percent of votes endorsed remaining in the United Kingdom and 1.1 percent joining with the Republic of Ireland. Following a quarter-century of violence, in 1998 a UK-Republic of Ireland agreement on Northern Ireland power-sharing was endorsed by 71.1 percent of voters with a turn out of 81.1 percent.

In the absence of a written constitution, there can be no constitutional provisions concerning referendums. Customs reflecting past practices and conventions reflecting a consensus among major parties are frequently cited as general principles concerning whether and in what circumstances a referendum may be held. Since both are understandings, they are not binding in a court of law and are open to dispute and change. As the above shows, the centuries-old custom of exclusive reliance on representative institutions has been replaced by an acceptance of a mixed system in which electors sometimes register their preferences in voting for a parliamentary representative nominated by a party and sometimes by voting on an issue in a referendum. There are disputes about whether a referendum should be held and if called, on the wording of the question and on conditions of campaigning and voting.

The first referendums were held on terms specified in ad hoc legislation (cf. Nairne, 1996). The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 authorised the establishment of the UK Electoral Commission as a permanent institution supervising the conduct of referendums. It is accountable to Parliament rather than to the government of the day and Commissioners are affiliated to a multiplicity of parties (www.electoralcommission.org.uk). Its duties include comment on the wording of a referendum question proposed by the government; registration of referendum campaign organisations and designation of lead organisations receiving public funding; monitoring referendum expenditure donations and limits; and certifying and announcing the result. It also publishes post-election reports on administrative aspects of referendum campaigns. There is no provision for a national vote to be called by a citizen’s initiative.

The chapter will summarize in the text most but not all points covered in the section on steps in the Referendum process.


For updates about the Brexit process, see www.BBC.co.uk/news

For social science commentary, see www.eukandeu.ac.uk

CITATIONS. (Only to references in text)

Bogdanor, Vernon, 1981. The People and the Party System. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butler, David and Kitzinger, Uwe, 1976. The 1975 Referendum. London: Macmillan.

Clarke, Harold D., Goodwin, M. And Whiteley, P., 2017. Brexit. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Commons Library, 2016. The European Union Referendum 2016. London: House of Commons Library Briefing Paper CBP 7639.

Hanratty, Chris, 2016. “Areal Interpolation and the UK’ s Referendum on EU Membership”. Norwich: University of East Anglia.

McHarg, A., Mullen, T., Page, A., and Walker, N, 2016. The Scottish Independence Referendum. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moore, Martin and Ramsay, Gordon. UK Media Coverage of the 2016 EU Referendum Campaign. London: King’s College Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power.

Nairne, Sir Patrick, Chair, 1996. Report of the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums. London: Constitution Unit, University College London.

Rallings, Colin and Thrasher, Michael, 2012. British Electoral Facts 1832-2012. London: Biteback Publishers.

Shipman, Tim, 2017. All Out War: the Full sSory of Brexit. London: William Collins.

Young, Hugo, 1998. This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair. London: Macmillan.