There is no doubt that it will be a historic day. Voter registration is closed, the UK is going to the polls and it is clear that today, the UK voting population’s decision on whether or not to leave the European Union will, either way, have a massive impact on the future of the country. One could be forgiven, given all the hype, for thinking that this referendum will be the first of its kind. Yet, it is important to remember that it is categorically not.
After all, the subject of this referendum itself is not exactly new. Old dogs in the political world will likely be thinking back to the UK-wide referendum on 5 June 1975. Over forty years apart, the wording of this referendum and the one on 23 June read differently, but fundamentally mean the same: 1975’s question of whether the UK should remain in the European Community (or Common Market) refers to the three organisations that became part of the European Union in 1993.
The Labour Cabinet at the time were divided over whether the UK should stay or go.
It had been an erratic period in more ways than one: on 2 June there was snow in some parts of the country. The Labour Government at the time had renegotiated the terms of their membership of the European Community early that year and the House of Commons had already voted to for the UK to stay a member using these new terms. The British public’s opinion had been asked for in case of a successful renegotiation.
The Labour Cabinet at the time were divided over whether the UK should stay or go. Members campaigned on different sides of the debate, defying the doctrine of Cabinet Collective Responsibility. In the end, turnout was 64.62 per cent. Of the 25,848,654 valid votes cast by the British public, 17,378,581 people voted for the UK to stay in the European Community – 67.23 per cent of the vote.
Still, had the government suddenly decided they didn’t want to continue their membership, nothing in theory could have stopped them – though in practice, not going by the will of the people could have been bad news politically. Though the government had announced in advance that it would go by the result, the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – meaning that the legislative body has absolute power – means that the referendum result could have been overridden if necessary. It’s the same with all referendums under the UK Parliament – though the amount of UK-wide referendums that have been held since 1973, apart from the 1975 referendum and the upcoming referendum, numbers just one. In 2011, the British public were called upon to vote on whether the alternative vote system should be used to elect MPs to the House of Commons instead of the First Past the Post system. At 42.2 per cent, turnout was pretty low, but 67.90 per cent of valid votes were cast as no – hence we still have First Past the Post today.
Indeed, most of the referendums held since 1973 have been regional ones. 1973’s one itself was an example of this, put to the voting population of Northern Ireland to decide whether the country should remain part of the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland. The majority was overwhelming, with 98.9 per cent of valid votes choosing the former option. On 1 March 1979, two referendums were held in the UK on the same day, asking Scottish and Welsh voters whether there should be Scottish and Welsh Assemblies respectively. Both referendums yielded no results – the Scottish referendum required 40 per cent of the electorate to vote yes, and while there was a small majority for this option, it wasn’t enough to meet the threshold.
There were no referendums in the Thatcher era – in fact, the lady herself once referred to them as “a device of dictators and demagogues”. In fact, it was only after Tony Blair had come to power following John Major’s time at Number 10 that referendums were held again – strikingly similar to the last ones. On 11 September 1997, two questions were put to voters in Scotland: the first over whether there should be a Scottish Parliament, and the second on whether it should have tax-varying powers. In both cases, over 1,500,000 people voted yes to the proposals. Days later, on 18 September, a yes vote in a referendum was also given to create a Welsh Assembly. Just months later, on 7 May 1998, the voting population in London got to have their say on whether there should be a London Mayor and a Greater London Authority – the result was a majority of support for it. Many local authorities have held referendums to gage support for directly-elected mayors, with lots of other referendums having been held in local areas.
Just over two weeks after the London referendum in May 1998, on the 22nd of the month, important referendums were held in both Northern Ireland and the country of Ireland regarding the Good Friday Agreement, a pivotal part of helping to create more peace in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. Northern Ireland saw a 71.1 per cent majority agree to a multi-party agreement by most of the political parties in the country, one of the two inter-related documents of the Agreement. One of Ireland’s referendums on that day was over the Nineteenth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which altered articles two and three of the constitution – before, they effectively said that Ireland had sovereignty over Northern Ireland. Of the valid votes, an overwhelming 94.39 per cent supported the change.
Referendums have clearly increased in popularity in recent years.
Big-scale referendums then went quiet in the Noughties, with the next major UK referendum being a yes vote from Wales on 3 March 2011 regarding Welsh devolution of powers. More recently, the well-known referendum over whether Scotland should become an independent country yielded a no result, with Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond resigning from both this role and his role as Scotland’s first minister following the referendum.
Referendums have clearly increased in popularity in recent years. It remains to be seen what issues the British public will be called upon to vote on in the future.