Referendums offer the entire electorate the chance to participate in decisions on specific issues. The UK has thus far held six referendums.
The first UK-wide referendum was held in the 1975 and was concerned with continued membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), also known as the Common Market. The poll, held on June 5th, 1975, commanded a high turnout (65%) and resulted in almost two-thirds in favour of continued membership. Every administrative area in the UK voted ‘Yes’, bar two small Scottish island regions.
The question put to the electorate was this: “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?”
Critics of membership were quick to point out that voting to stay in the EEC was a far cry from voting to join it. The electorate had not been given a chance to vote on whether the UK should join, and therefore the argued that once joined, a referendum was a foregone conclusion. No further referendums have been held on EU membership.
Other UK referendums are:
1973: Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK. A referendum on Northern Ireland’s continued membership of the UK after the abolition of the Stormont government. The result was an overwhelming yes after opponents agreed to boycott the vote.
1979: Devolution for Wales and Scotland. A very close run vote on a devolved assembly for Scotland with legislative powers in areas such as health care and education. Turnout was around 64%. A clause in the referendum legislation stated that 40% must vote in favour if the result was to stand. Despite winning the vote, only 33% of the electorate voted ‘Yes’ and therefore the vote was nullified. This had significant impact on the stability of the UK government, with incumbent Labour losing the support of the SNP and subsequently losing a House of Commons vote of confidence that resulted in the 1979 General Election.
Despite lower turnout in Wales, an overwhelming majority rejected a call for its own independent assembly.
1997: Devolution again for Wales and Scotland. Following Labour’s huge election win in 1997, Scotland and Wales were again offered independent assemblies. In Scotland, voters were given the option of a parliament with wide-ranging legislative powers and limited tax-raising ability. Turnout was lower than the 1979 vote; however 60% voted in favour.
In Wales, voters were offered a limited assembly with no tax-raising powers. Again turnout was far lower than the previous referendum in 1979, at 50%. 50% of voters favoured the limited Welsh assembly.
1998: Devolution for Northern Ireland. Following the ‘Good Friday Agreement’, the voters of Northern Ireland were balloted on the restoration of a reformed Stormont Assembly. In a vote of very high turnout (about 80%), over 70% voted in favour.
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