7 referendums that shaped the UK


The frequency of referendums held in the United Kingdom has increased in recent years, but which ones have shaped the country, and how?

Being a political commentator in Switzerland must be fascinating. The endless cycle of referendums on issues ranging from nuclear power to constitutional powers would be hard to keep up with. In Britain, we have had a rather relaxed affair with public votes on issues, but they are becoming frequent features of the political landscape.

There have been twelve referendums held in the last forty-four years, but here are seven that have shaped the UK. Of the twelve, there is an even split between voters opting for change and voters picking the status quo. If the two simultaneous referendums in Scotland in 1997 are counted separately then the figure rises to seven for change and six against.

Just three referendums have been UK-wide.

1. European Economic Community referendum (1975)

Two years after Edward Heath’s Conservative government took the UK into the EU’s predecessor, the new Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, let the country have a say on whether or not we should stay inside the Community in the first ever UK-wide referendum.

According to the BBC, almost 70% of voters backed staying in the Common Market. The referendum had a significant effect on Britain, keeping us inside the Community, which eventually evolved into the European Union that the country is leaving today.

2. European Union referendum (2016)

Last year’s vote to leave the EU, is perhaps the most significant referendum of them all as it is changing the very way the country operates with the EU and the rest of the world, although the final details of this will remain in flux for some time. It has also had huge political consequences: deposing a prime minister, leading to a leadership challenge in Labour, and being a significant factor in Theresa May’s decision to call for an early election.

There is no doubt that the decision to leave the EU is one of the most significant referendums in the UK, and perhaps one of the most significant in the entire world.

3. Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement (1998)

Once the Good Friday Agreement was reached, a referendum was held in Northern Ireland to see if the people backed the deal. 71% of the country backed the agreement, which paved the way for Northern Ireland’s devolution and helped promote peace in the region.

4. Scotland’s (first) independence referendum (2014)

In 2011, the Scottish National Party won an unprecedented majority of seats in the Scottish parliament, leading to a referendum on the fate of Scotland within the United Kingdom just three years later. After a passionate, and somewhat bitter campaign, the ‘No’ side won with 55% of the vote, ensuring that Scotland stayed in the United Kingdom. The shadow of the referendum still lingers today, with the possibility of another vote in the coming years, as well as Scots tending to vote along constitutional lines.

5. Scotland (1997)

Scotland’s 1997 devolution referendum ensured that devolution became a fundamental component of the British political structure. After Tony Blair’s landslide, two questions were put to the Scottish people in the form a referendum. The first question asked voters if they wanted a Scottish parliament, which was backed 74%-26%, and the second asked voters if that new parliament should have the power to vary tax in Scotland, a proposal which was supported by 63.5% of the voters.

6. Wales (1997)

At the same time, voters in Wales were also asked if they would like a devolved assembly. The country was split down the middle, with the referendum only narrowly passing (50.3% - 49.7%). While the vote was close at the time, the assembly has clearly made a mark on the country, with the people of Wales voting to strengthen the legislative body’s powers in a 2011 referendum.

7. London (1997)

Finally, the devolution referendum for London, which paved the way for an elected mayor and legislative assembly, has undeniably reshaped the political landscape. The city now has an impressive range of powers, as well as a figure-head who represents the city both at home and abroad.

The rest:

Referendums not included in the list were the 1973 Northern Irish referendum on whether the region should leave or remain in the UK, the 1979 Scotland devolution referendum, which did get majority support but failed to meet the imposed turnout threshold, a similar referendum in Wales which did get support (1979), the previously mentioned enhanced devolution referendum for Wales (2011), and the AV referendum of 2011, which was rejected UK-wide.

Referendums are clearly a focal point of our political landscape, but one question remains unanswered. Should we say "referendums" or "referenda"?

Perhaps we should hold a vote on the issue.

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