Referendums in the United Kingdom
Referendums in the United Kingdom are occasionally held at a national, regional or local level. National referendums can be permitted by an Act of Parliament but by tradition are extremely rare due to the ancient principle of parliamentary sovereignty meaning that they cannot be constitutionally binding on either the Government or Parliament, although they usually have a persuasive political effect. Referendums are regulated through the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 whilst in Scotland referendums on devolved matters can be held under the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020.: 42
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Until the latter half of the twentieth century the concept of a referendum was widely seen in British politics as "unconstitutional" and an "alien device". As of 2021, only three national referendums have been held across the whole of the United Kingdom: in 1975, 2011 and most recently in 2016.
Two of these referendums were held on the issue of the United Kingdom's relationship with Europe with the first held on the issue of continued membership of what was known at the time as the European Communities (EC), which was the collective term for the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC), and was also referred to by many at that time as the "Common Market". This was the 1975 European Communities membership referendum which was held two and a half years after the United Kingdom became a member state on 1 January 1973 and was the first national referendum ever to be held within the United Kingdom. The second took place forty-one years later by which time the various European organisations (with the exception of EAEC) had been integrated by subsequent treaty ratifications into the European Union (EU) when the electorate was asked to vote again on the issue of continued membership in the 2016 European Union membership referendum.
The 2011 AV referendum on the proposal to use the alternative vote system in parliamentary elections is the only UK-wide referendum that has been held on a domestic issue. The referendum was held as a result of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement which was drawn up after the 2010 general election.
The Government of the United Kingdom has also to date held ten major referendums within the constituent countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on issues of devolution, sovereignty and independence; the first such referendum was the 1973 Northern Ireland border poll and, as of 2018, the most recent is the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.