POLYAS Election Glossary

We provide explanations and background information on elections, voting rights and digital democracy


A referendum is a popular vote which expresses the will of the public with regard to a particular political issue.


The most recent referendum in the UK was that in which the public was asked ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or Leave the European Union?’ Commonly known as the ‘Brexit’ (short for ‘British Exit’) Referendum, 72% of the population across all four Home Nations turned out to vote on one of two options given on their poll cards, namely, ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ or ‘Leave the European Union’. In the end, and after a long campaign in which politicians and public figures advocated for a certain position, 52% of those who turned out voted in favour of leaving the European Union, whilst 48% voted to remain.

Legal status of referendums in the UK

In line with the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty, governments and Parliament are not legally bound by the result of a referendum. In theory, the UK government and Parliament could ignore the result of the Brexit referendum and continue on as part of the European Union. However, in practice, any government or political party which defies the mass will of the population as expressed through a referendum would more than likely face grave political consequences at the next general election, and therefore would be very unlikely to go against the referendum result. Indeed, the political consequences for those prominent figures who backed ‘remain’ are already being felt, the most notable case being the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, who was also leading the campaign for Britain to stay in the EU.

History of referendums in the UK

Historically there have been very few referendums in the UK. In fact, there have only been three referendums in which the entire UK population was asked to vote on a particular issue: twice on membership of the EU in 1975 (then known as the European Economic Community) and 2016, and once on adopting the Alternative Vote system in 2011. There have also been a number of major referendums within individual Home Nations relating to issues of national sovereignty and devolution, the most recent of which was the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Referendums are a rare occurrence in UK political culture precisely because of Parliamentary Sovereignty, which invests primary law and decision making power within the Westminster legislature, meaning there is usually no need to refer specific issues to the electorate to be voted upon.

See also: Devolution, Parliamentary Sovereignty, Alternative Vote

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