"Hold a referendum" is a frequently heard cry. In the United Kingdom there has only ever been one national referendum. It was held in 1975 to assess whether U.K. membership of what was then the European Economic Community (or "Common Market") had public support. In the event, 67% (of a 65% turnout) supported membership.
No referendum was held prior to accession to the original Treaties of Rome. The Conservative government (with Edward Heath as Prime Minister) signed up to the Treaties and the U.K. acceded to the Treaties by the European Communities Act 1972 which came into legal force on 1st January 1973.
The Labour Manifesto in 2005 promised the public a referendum on what was then referred to as the "European Constitution" but no referendum was ever held since the government argued that the Lisbon Treaty was not the same document at all. Lisbon was presented by Lord Mandelson as a mere "tidying up exercise". A more risible and patronising argument you would travel far to find. Perhaps this shows that British politicians will only play lip-service to the idea of holding referenda.
The 2010 election manifestos of the 3 main parties are now available. Each refers to holding referendums in a number of policy areas.
Labour: Alternative Voting to the Commons; Open-list PR for a reformed House of Lords; Regional Mayors (with London-style powers); Law-making powers for the Welsh Assembly. Labour say that they would not join the "Euro" without a referendum. They promise an "All Party Commission" to consider a written constitution but do not mention a referendum. [Always presuming that other Parties would participate in such a commission].
Conservative: Local referenda on local issues (if 5% of local population "sign up"); a referendum on greater powers for the Welsh Assembly; amend the European Communities Act 1972 so that referenda would be required prior to any further transfer of powers to the EU. (They say they will never enter the "euro" and would seek to prevent any future government doing so without a referendum).
Liberal Democrats: Say they remain committed to an "in/out" referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and ther EU. [Quite a few "weasel words" there]. In principle they believe in joining the Euro but promise a referendum. However, the conditions are not yet right for entry. [Will they ever be?]. The LibDems wish to see a written constitution to be prepared by a "Citizen's Convention" and to be approved by a referendum.
North of the Border, the Scottish Nationalists are still consulting about the holding of a referendum on further deovolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. See Draft Referendum (Scotland) Bill. They say that this will be an "advisory referendum" which appears to mean that it will not have legislative effect but would send a message to politicians both in Edinburgh and London.
Referenda appear to be a good means of assessing public opinion on important issues. They would widen democratic participation. Of course, it is perhaps inevitable that politicians will seek to control the topics they will permit a referendum on. Would they have ever dared to hold one on the death penalty? (Note: the death penalty is now unlawful in Europe so the question cannot arise today but could have done in the past). Would they ever dare hold one on whether to be in or out of the EU? A further problem is that a referendum really requires the question to be straightforward even if the issue is not. Consider what the situation might be if a draft written constitution were presented - e.g. "Do you approve the constitution attached to this Ballot paper in its entirety? Yes or No." The problem would be that people would like parts of the proposal and dislike others. How then do they determine vote? Presumably, if you feel strongly enough against one aspect then you would have to vote against the entirety.
At election time, we see something of a conversion to the idea of holding referenda but will they happen? I wonder why I am not holding my breath?
The Manifestos: Labour ...... Conservative ..... Liberal Democrat