What is a Referendum?

In Britain there has been a massive rebellion of sorts on the back benches of the House of Commons, the main seat of power in the United Kingdom’s Parliament. Members of Parliament are calling for a referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union. With all this going on in the news right now I thought this would be an excellent time to answer the question “What is a referendum?”

'Ballot Papers and Newspaper Headlines' by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, via Flickr

What is a Referendum?

At its most simple, a referendum is a political question put to all citizens who are eligible to vote. They are given some possible answers and their vote is the answer they favour the most; or hate the least depending on your point of view. It’s as close as a country can get to actual democracy in the original sense of the word.

Referenda are not often used in the United Kingdom, partly because they are rather expensive to run and very time consuming, and partly because they fly in the face of the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty. This is the idea that Parliament, as the democratically elected voice of the people and the source of legislation, should have the final say on how the United Kingdom is governed.

Which brings us nicely to our second question.

Are the Results of a Referendum Binding?

In many countries, the constitution documents how the results of a referendum have to be dealt with but the UK doesn’t have a fixed constitution. The majority of it is unwritten and takes the form of Parliamentary conventions. Even the position of Prime Minister isn’t one that is set in stone, so if you’re expecting something as little used as a referendum to have become calcified in legislation you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

As it stands, the UK Parliament does not have to accept the results of a referendum. If the results don’t go the way the people in power want them to, they could pull an Ireland and run referendum after referendum until they get the result they wanted in the first place. Equally, they could just ignore the decision of the people and do what they want.

So why don’t they? Well it’s generally regarded as political suicide to ask a huge amount of people on whom you rely for your job come election time what they want, then to do the exact opposite. This is yet another reason why most decisions in Parliament don’t go to a referendum. It’s too risky for controversial decisions, you could end up doing what you think is bad for the country just because if you don’t, you’ll be out of Parliament when the ballot boxes are opened.

So there you have it. A referendum is a costly question that is asked of the people on a very rare occasion and the answer is not legally binding on the government even when it is asked, but it makes more sense for them to follow the decision than go against it.

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