Ben Williams


Referendums are historically uncommon within broader British history, but 2021 marks the tenth anniversary of the first of a series of referendums that irrevocably altered the country’s politics in the decade that followed. The so-called ‘forgotten’ referendum on electoral reform took place in May 2011, representing a key condition of the 2010 coalition ‘deal’ between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. It was resoundingly defeated at the polls, yet it significantly proved to be a catalyst for both the eventual demise of the Liberal Democrats, but also for some further even more fundamental shifts in the country’s political landscape in the years ahead. The tendency to govern by referendum would reach further heights with the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 and the EU referendum of 2016 when the stakes were significantly higher on both occasions.


In retrospect, the 2011 referendum that proposed changing the Westminster First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system to a variant known as the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV), was certainly the lowest profile of the three. It nevertheless reflected a key 'deal-breaking requirement of Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg for his party to enter a formal coalition with the Conservatives a year earlier.  Demands for a more proportional electoral system had been a deep-rooted shibboleth of the Liberal Democrats (and their Liberal Party predecessors), and this referendum seemed to offer them the chance to finally achieve a much-cherished policy goal.


However, a major stumbling block to this aspiration was the fact that the majority coalition partners, the Conservatives, were avowed supporters of the existing electoral system and fiercely campaigned to oppose the change, with Prime Minister David Cameron at the forefront.


The result itself was decisive (68% no versus 32% yes, on a 42% turnout), and while the coalition survived this turbulent episode, it put the principles of collective responsibility under strain and heightened inter-party coalition tensions.


Some observers have claimed that the coalition’s equilibrium never fully recovered from this referendum, marking a notable souring of the initial mood of co-operation that existed in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 general election.


Why there was such a convincing rejection of the AV referendum has been widely debated, with some suggestions that at the root of it was a fundamental lack of voter interest or indeed understanding in what was a low priority ‘fringe issue’ to many people. Such an issue could be said to have largely only motivated political activists or enthusiasts, which is perhaps reflective in the low turnout figure of just over 40%. Others have claimed that a principal factor was that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats had quickly grown very unpopular due to their U-turns over various policies, most notably in supporting the trebling of student tuition fees the previous autumn.


On this basis, many of those who did vote could have been said to have used the AV referendum as an opportunity to punish the Liberal Democrats (with such externalised factors being variables to consider when a referendum is called).


Yet this ‘forgotten’ referendum set in motion a precedent for more frequent usage of direct democracy in subsequent years, ostensibly as a means of resolving difficult political issues of the day. Indeed, contemporary political commentators have variously observed that Cameron developed a positive attitude and confidence in terms of using referendums, particularly so after the initially successful employment of this political tool (from his party perspective at least).  Having used a referendum to crush the threat of proportional representation for a generation (with the added benefits of damaging his junior coalition partners in the process), the prospect of using further referendums for other pressing political issues grew in its appeal.


This became increasingly apparent regarding Cameron’s strategy for dealing with the rising mood of Scottish nationalism, which had grown as a political irritant to his government’s unionist credentials since the SNP had seized outright control of the Holyrood Parliament in 2011 following the devolved elections.


Cameron subsequently took an increasingly characteristic gamble, agreeing to hold an independence referendum with the stakes seemingly much higher, with the very future of the United Kingdom on the line. Yet once again, the gamble paid off to his side’s partisan advantage, with the union seemingly secured by this method in September 2014, albeit with a closer result of 55-45% against independence, within the context of a much higher turnout of almost 85%.


In hindsight, maybe the relatively close nature of the Scottish independence referendum served as a warning that Cameron should have heeded, being too close to comfort in terms of his eventual preferred outcome. Yet filled by a growing sense of hubristic over-confidence, Cameron seemed at ease with pursuing a referendum option to deal with the interminable issue of Europe. This came to a peak when he included a proposed ‘in-out’ referendum pledge within the 2015 Conservative manifesto, on the premise that it had the promising potential to resolve his own party’s and indeed the wider country’s European policy divisions once and for all. While ultimately advocating to remain within the EU, Cameron’s faith in his electoral popularity and persuasive abilities was arguably further enhanced by his somewhat surprising victory at the 2015 general election, with him seemingly on a ‘roll’ of electoral victories. Yet within a year of what was arguably his greatest electoral triumph in securing an outright majority for a second term, Cameron’s ‘Brexit gamble’ spectacularly backfired, terminating his premiership in the process, and serving as a stark warning as to what happens when a Prime Minister finds themselves on the wrong side of such a grand experiment in direct democracy (featuring a 52-48% leave victory and a higher than usual turnout of 72%).   


In the context of this growing affinity for utilising referenda, Cameron arguably pushed both his political luck and the UK’s constitutional mechanisms to the limit, embracing an unfamiliar device with recurring regularity. All three referendums created varying splits within the three main political parties, and the high-profile third referendum in 2016 appears to have been one too far, with far more wide-ranging implications than the first one back in 2011. Consequently, within this five-year timeframe, Cameron’s experimentation with such direct democratic methods as a means of resolving political problems ultimately sparked the country’s biggest constitutional change for over 40 years and ended his spell at 10 Downing Street. This would suggest that within the broader context of British politics, the referendum device is both a novel yet dangerous method of governance.


Author biography


Ben Williams is a Tutor in Politics and Political Theory at the University of Salford. Ie tweets at @BenWill1973. Image credit: Number10/Flickr.