Elections & Voting Explained
What is a referendum?
A referendum involves the electorate voting on an issue rather than for a representative, as in a normal election. Thus it requires a direct decision from the voters and by-passes the normal processes of representative democracy.
One or more questions have to be put to the voters, generally with a yes or no answer. For example, in the Scottish referendum of 1997 voters were asked whether or not they agreed that there should be a Scottish Parliament and also whether or not they agreed that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers. The wording of the question is important and in the last example ‘tax-varying’ suggests that taxes could be raised or lowered, whereas ‘levy a tax’ would have suggested a new tax increase. The independent Electoral Commission considers proposed wording and may recommend changes.
For the 2014 referendum the Scottish Government wanted “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country Yes/No? but the Electoral Commission felt that this was leading voters to say yes and recommended instead “Should Scotland be an independent country Yes/No?”. If the British Government had insisted on a question asking whether Scotland should remain part of the UK then the anti-independence campaign would have been asking for a Yes vote with the psychological impact that this would have had. The organisation for a referendum is the same as for a general election with postal voting and voting at local polling stations. The result is taken to be binding on Parliament.
Although proposals had been made for referendums in the interwar period and local referendums on whether pubs should be open on Sunday had taken place in Wales, there was a strong feeling by the political elite that referendums were alien to the Westminster system. Politicians of that generation had seen the use of referendums by dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini. In 1973 though, in the midst of the conflict there, the British Government held a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK but it was boycotted by the Catholics and so the 99% vote in favour of the status quo had little meaning.