Referendums and the Constitution

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A highly topical research paper on Referendums and the Constitution by The Constitution Society, focusing on the use of referendums in the United Kingdom (UK). The June 2016 referendum on European Union membership lies at the centre of one of the most divisive controversies in the political and constitutional history of the UK. The resulting vote to leave the European Union (‘Brexit’) has vast constitutional consequences. This event highlights the importance of the subject of referendums and the constitution in the UK. Such popular votes have been a prominent part of political life in the UK for more than forty years . This paper examines whether this development in the use of referendums in the UK has been beneficial.

This paper considers referendums and the constitution, taking into account their whole course of development. It includes selected case studies and an historical overview of all referendums that have been held in the UK. The starting principle is that referendums can play a valuable role in a working democracy; especially in ensuring that substantial constitutional change is a consensual process. However, as this paper explores, the executive can manipulate the use of referendums in the UK. This paper discusses examples in which referendums in the UK have been deployed to meet party political ends.

The authors assess the strengths of referendums and the potential problems associated with them, before making recommendations. They find that incorporation of referendums in the UK constitutional system was without satisfactory consideration being given to the desirability and implications of such a change. As a consequence, there remain difficulties in reconciling the use of referendums in the UK with the core features of representative democracy. Referendums can pose a challenge to our democratic system, and can generate resentment through highlighting political and social divisions. The paper proposes some key principles and good practice intended to address this problem.

Related works

Nat le Roux‘s commentary on the relationship between Parliamentary Democracy and the use of referendums.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.