Lesson objective

Learn about the use of referendums in the political process with special reference to UK's referendum on membership of the EU in June 2016

Key ideas

A referendum is a controversial political tool in an elective democracy 

Success criteria

Describe what circumstances may justify use of a referendum in an elective democracy;

Identify some reasons why the outcome of the UK referendum on membership of the EU in June 2016 was so controversial;

Think of some advantages of a referendum in national political decision making.

Introduction to the learning

Show a picture of the Brexit bus that carried the poster claiming that in the event of the UK's leaving the EU £370 million per week would be available for the NHS. If you can, in pairs assess the validity of this claim.

Note: this is the amount of money the UK pays to the EU.  But a large part of it is returned to the UK to support for example agriculture, university research and regional economic development

Support activities

Think of ways of testing claims made by opposing parties in a referendum. How can we be sure they are telling the truth?

Extension activities

In the UK referendum no conditions were set for assessing whether the results of the referendum should be accepted. A simple majority was all that was needed. What, if any, conditions would you set?

In your view should the government have accepted the result as binding on it to leave the EU or could it have accepted the result as advisory, especially as the result was so close?

Main body of the lesson

Background on the use of referendums in the UK.

The first referendum used in this country was in 1975 when the subject was membership of the EU (or the European Economic Community as it was called then)

Referendums have since been used for decisions on devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the North East of England and the Alternative Vote.

They are also used in local government on increases in Council tax and Neighbourhood Plans 

They are therefore becoming more common and more accepted as a means of political decision making.

For or against

If you can, either in pairs or in groups or in debate, consider the objections to referendums and their advantages

Some of the common objections

A referendum on a complex topic such as membership of the EU is not something the ordinary voter can be expected to understand. It's the job of MPs to study the details and understand the issues. We elect them to represent us on such matters.

The outcome of a referendum can be strongly influenced by the media who may have a political objective. The Daily Express for example has long made it a campaign to leave the EU. Accordingly its reporting on the issue is likely to be biased.

Claims can be made by either side which may not be open to challenge.  This is true of any election but matters more when just one issue is for debate.

Some of the common advantages

A referendum provides an opportunity to engage directly in the political process and not just be able to vote at long intervals.

It provides an opportunity for public debate on an important matter of direct interest to voters.

It provides an opportunity to influence local decision making

Class activities

If you can, in groups suggest a topic that would be worth putting to a referendum and a mechanism to ensure the claims were substantiated. Note, the Republic of Ireland has a senior figure in the judiciary who performs the function of assessing claims in the case of referendums.