The last time the country got this excited about a referendum was probably in 2014 when Scotland went to the polls to leave, or stay in, the UK.

This time it will be the whole of the UK’s turn to vote on whether to stay in, or leave, Europe.

When will the EU referendum be held?

The quick answer is – we don’t know. Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to hold the in/out EU referendum some time before the end of 2017 and this date was confirmed by the European Union Referendum Act, which was given Royal Assent on December 17.

A lot of people feel that June 2016 is a likely date, but this remains unconfirmed.

Why will there be a referendum?

The pledge of an in/out referendum on EU membership was a key part of the Conservatives’ 2015 election manifesto. David Cameron originally made the promise on January 23, 2013, the referendum was included in the Queen’s Speech in May 2015 and the referendum bill introduced to the House of Commons later that month.

Are there different types of referendum?

Geographically, referenda can be held at different administrative levels. In addition to two UK-wide referenda, there have been 10 referenda held in the UK’s constituent countries (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland), and also numerous local referenda such as the 1998 Greater London Authority referendum which paved the way for the creation of the London Assembly with a directly elected mayor.

Procedurally, there are two types of referendum – those held before the legislation is passed and those held after legislation is passed. The EU referendum is an example of the first type – used to gauge public support for a topic before a law is passed.

EU Referendum: When is it, who can vote and what will we be voting for?

Who chooses the wording for the referendum question?

The Electoral Commission – an independent organisation which regulates elections in the UK - has to approve the wording of any referendum question. However, it is the Government who proposes the wording for the question.

In the case of the EU referendum, the Government initially suggested one question with a yes/no answer: “Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?”.

However, the Electoral Commission amended that to: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” with option to select one of two options: “Remain a member of the European Union” or “Leave the European Union”.

The same Commission also administers other aspects of the referendum process such as campaign finance and certifying the result.

Does the Government have to abide by the result of the vote?

Referenda are not legally binding, just a way of the public expressing their opinion. However, while the Government could technically ignore the result of the referendum, in practice governments do not want to damage their credibility and future electability by ignoring the public’s will.

Why does a government have a referendum and not just pass a law?

There is no legal need for a government to hold a referendum. However, when the subject is one which could alter something concerning the country’s status and administration and where there is intense public interest in a subject, a referendum is usually held.

As Parliament’s website notes: “In a referendum, the government asks members of the public to help decide on an important issue.”

Who can vote in a referendum?

That depends on the referendum.

For the EU referendum - according to the EU Referendum Act of 2015 - only British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over the age of 18 who are resident in the UK or Gibraltar will be able to vote. British citizens who have lived abroad for less than 15 years will also have their say.

Do we need to register to vote in a referendum?

As with any general or local election, you need to register to vote if you want to be able to have your say in a referendum. By registering to vote you will be added to the electoral register.

Find out how to register to vote on the Electoral Commission’s About My Vote website.

Will there be any campaigning?

You probably remember the strong ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns for the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

Like the Scottish vote, which saw the Scottish Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties united behind the Better Together campaign against the SNP-led Yes Scotland organisation, all indications so far are that the main campaign groups will be cross-party.

To be a campaigner, you must register with the Electoral Commission which regulates campaign finance. Registration for the EU Referendum opened on February 1. According to the latest Electoral Commission advice, campaigners should: “keep accurate records now of any donations or loans over £7,500 for the purposes of referendum campaigning.”

EU Referendum: When is it, who can vote and what will we be voting for?

Where does the word ‘referendum’ come from?

The word referendum is derived from the Latin verb referre which means ‘to refer’. Referendum is actually a Latin word – it is the gerundive of the verb and means ‘something to be referred’.

Is the plural ‘referendums’ or ‘referenda’?

Throughout this article we’ve been using ‘referenda’ for the plural. This follows the rule that words derived from Latin also have the Latin plural – which is an ‘a’ ending. See also stadium/stadia, bacterium/bacteria.

But the short answer is that both options are technically correct. The question of ‘referendums’ versus ‘referenda’ is very much one of taste – in fact you could probably even hold a referendum on it.

In 1998 Parliament was even brought into the debate when the late Alan Clark MP asked then-Speaker Betty Boothroyd to rule on the question. After noting that the word ‘referendum’ had first entered the English language 150 years previously, she declined, stating: “I think the plural is a matter of taste but I've always preferred the use of the English language to any Latin form if that is of some guidance.”

Are UK referenda always national?

No, there have been numerous local referenda since 1973.

When was the first referendum in the UK?

In 1973 there was a referendum held in Northern Ireland to decide whether it should remain a part of the UK or join the Republic of Ireland.  This was the first referendum in any part of the UK.

How many referenda have there been?

At the time of writing, there have been 12 referenda in the UK since 1973, although only two of these have been UK-wide.

The first of these was held in 1975 to vote on the UK’s continued membership of the Common Market.

The second UK-wide referendum, held in 2011, considered whether the ‘first past the post’ electoral system should be replaced by the ‘alternative vote’ method. The ‘no’ vote won.






Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum

To remain part of the UK or join the Republic of Ireland.

Remained in UK


United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum

The UK’s continued membership of the European Community (Common Market).



Scottish devolution referendum

Formation of a Scottish Assembly.



Welsh devolution referendum

Formation of a Welsh Assembly.



Scottish devolution referendum

Formation of a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers.



Welsh devolution referendum

Formation of a National Assembly for Wales.



Greater London Authority referendum

Elected mayor and assembly for Greater London.



Northern Ireland Belfast Agreement referendum

To gauge support for the Good Friday Agreement.



North East England devolution referendum

Elected assembly for the North East region.



United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum

Changing the UK’s electoral system from ‘first past the post’ to ‘alternative vote’.



Welsh devolution referendum

Additional powers for the Welsh Assembly.



Scottish independence referendum

Scottish independence.