Procedure whereby a decision on proposed legislation is referred to the electorate for settlement by direct vote of all the people. It is most frequently employed in Switzerland, the first country to use it, but has become increasingly widespread.
Critics argue that referendums undermine parliamentary authority, but they do allow the elector to take part directly in decision-making. They may have a value in removing autocratic regimes, for example the referendums in Chile in 1978, 1980, and 1988, the last of which was followed by the fall of Pinochet. Similar devices are the recall, whereby voters are given the opportunity of demanding the dismissal from office of officials, and the initiative.
In 1975 Britain used a national referendum to decide whether or not to remain a member of the European Economic Community. In 1996 the anti-Maastricht treaty, billionaire financier, Sir James Goldsmith, set up the Referendum Party to campaign for a referendum on the European Union; it attracted only 3% of the vote in the May 1997 UK general election, despite spending £20 million on its campaign. In September 1997 referendums were held in Scotland and Wales, in which voters approved the government's devolution plans, and, in May 1998, in a referendum held at the same time in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland the electorate approved the Good Friday agreement making way to peace on the island.
In 1992 several European countries (Ireland, Denmark, France, Spain) held referendums on whether to ratify the Maastricht Treaty on closer European economic and political union. A referendum was held in Canada in 1995 on the issue of independence for the province of Québec.
In some cases the referendum precedes executive or legislative action and in others it is a ratification of an executive or legislative act, which may have no legal force until approved by a referendum. Referenda are used in many states of the United States and in a number of cases are combined with the ‘initiative’, by which measures may be proposed by a specified number of electors for enactment or enforce the submission to a referendum of proposals made by the state legislature. Another similar device used in some US states is the ‘recall’, by which electors may call their representatives to account. In Western Europe Switzerland makes the greatest use of referendums.
Several countries use referendums to deal with specific questions, such as liquor laws (Canada and New Zealand) and in particular to approve constitutional amendments (Australia and several countries in Western Europe). A number of US states require constitutional amendments to be submitted to referendums, but amendments to the US Constitution are ratified by state legislatures or conventions.
The rules regarding the conduct of referendums vary considerably. Amendments to the Australian Constitution, for example, must be approved by a majority of all electors voting and by a majority of the electors in a majority of the states.
Referendums in the UK British political tradition has normally rejected the referendum as an unnecessary device on the grounds that the will of the people is expressed generally at elections and between elections through its representatives in Parliament, although local referendums are used over licensing laws in Wales. Nonetheless, Lord Balfour sought to introduce the referendum as a means of solving the constitutional crisis over reform of the House of Lords in 1911, Stanley Baldwin suggested the referendum be used to resolve the dispute over protection and imperial preference in 1930, and in 1945 Winston Churchill favoured it as a means of deciding whether the wartime coalition should continue until Japan had been defeated, but in none of these cases was it adopted.
In 1975, however, Britain used a national referendum to determine whether or not to remain a member of the European Economic Community. The prime minister, Harold Wilson, insisted that the use of the referendum in this instance was a special case which should not be regarded as a precedent for the adoption of the referendum as a regular part of constitutional and political machinery, but the fact that the referendum has been used is inevitably a precedent and provides support for those who favour its use. In a local referendum in May 1998, London's voters approved the creation of an elected mayor.