E: The Good Friday Agreement (1998)
Turnout of 80%
'Yes' support of 71%
All political parties had to engage within a period of campaigning, with these campaign for the 'Yes' vote or 'No' vote - having to stipulate explicit why - through speeches, campaign visits and literature.
Typically, though, such high turnout is rare in referendums in the UK suggesting that democracy is not enhanced by using this technique. There have been 11 referendums throughout the entire UK since 1973. For example, the 1975 referendum on whether to remain as a member of the European Community returned a 67% “in favour” vote on a 65% turnout. This referendum was called by the Labour Party in 1975, following Conservative PM Edward Heath’s decision to enter the EC in 1973. The 1997 referendum in Wales on whether to introduce a Welsh Assembly as part of the devolution process only had a 50.1% turnout. And there was the 2011 AV referendum on whether to switch the FPTP electoral system for an AV system – 68% voted no, but on a turnout of only 42.2%.
Should referendums be used more widely in the UK
Fearful leaders resist referendums because they know the people have had enough of integration – hence the refusal to give British voters a chance to get out of the EU.
Constitution of the United Kingdom - Wikipedia
- Professor Vernon Bogdanor Research Professor at King's College Introduction Definition: Referendums are a form of direct democracy, enabling the electorate to vote on single issues.
A Level Politics – UK and Global A level Politics Website
Furthermore, the use of the FPTP system for electing MPs may well provide a good basis for using referendums to decide on tricky or controversial topics. The FPTP system can be criticised for allowing the larger parties to completely dominate politics, undermining the chances for smaller parties to gain seats in parliament. Referendums allow those under-represented voices to have more of a say. Clearly the electoral system is unlikely to change in the UK anytime soon, so perhaps the best outcome for democracy is to have the stability generated by FPTP with the more nuanced representation through the referendum ballot box. In other words, representative democracy is enhanced by the use of direct democracy through referendums. Whilst this argument does need to be offset against the additional cost of running a referendum (marketing, ballot papers, canvassing, setting up polling stations etc), it is important to note that referendums can prevent excessive use of power by a majority government, and can go some way towards reducing the chance of elective dictatorship in a FPTP system – it is difficult for a government to overturn the decision made in a referendum.
Foreign Policy Centre: Publications
A similar argument can be made for the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum – different political parties held very different views on the advisability of Scottish independence, and so direct democracy was a better way than representative democracy of establishing the will of the people. The Scottish independence referendum had a number of other democratic benefits. For example, the public’s awareness of key issues such as tax, economic growth and EU membership rose considerably following the marketing and media campaigns of both sides (Yes Scotland and Better Together). This should allow the electorate to scrutinise the work of their representatives in Westminster and Scottish Parliament more closely and effectively. Also, democracy was enhanced because 16 and 17 year olds were allowed to vote, widening the number of people participating in politics. However, as the outcome of that referendum showed, the division between voters was also very close with 55.3% voting to remain part of the UK and 44.7% voting for independence – so a large proportion of the Scottish population did not get the result that they wanted. Remarkably, though, turnout was a huge 84.6%, the largest for any referendum since the introduction of universal suffrage, and higher even than during the 2015 General Election (77.1%) or the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections (55.6%). This suggests that democracy is indeed enhanced by the use of referendums.