For those hiding under a rock, the UK’s future in the EU is being decided right now by means of a referendum.

This, coupled with the constant talk of a plebiscite for marriage equality in Australia got me thinking.

Generally, referendums and plebiscites are meant to show the will of a people on a single topic. However, they are not always binding and the government of the day does not have to act on them. This is particularly apparent in Australia where a number of Senators/MP's have come out and said that regardless of the result, they will vote against equality (making it a ridiculously expensive exercise in futility), and it could still be the case in Britain.

So my question is, are there any examples in the last 100 years where a government has gone against the result of a referendum/plebiscite? If so, what are they?

Please note: Yes, in some areas (like Australia) there is a distinct difference between a Plebiscite and a Referendum depending on if it changes the Constitution or not. That's not really relevant to this question though, as it's dealing with a populist decision that the government has asked the electorate for but subsequently ignored.

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    You may want to read this. The constitution has been validated after, in 2008, with no other referendum.
    – Gautier C
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 7:36
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    I would not call a non binding referendum "an exercise of futility". At the very least, it gives a formal gauge of the opinion of the people. And elected representatives chosing to ignore it are made aware that they could lose popular support due to this issue.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 11:39
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    Are you looking at just the UK, at British-style parliamentary democracies, or at democracies in general?
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 1:46
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    @Mark - any parliamentary democracy. U.K. was mentioned because of its obvious relevancy at the moment and Australia because it's what I'm most familiar with
    – user7754
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 5:49
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    @SJuan76 - in this case I would classify it as such. The LNP has already denied its members a "conscience" vote on the matter (I.e they aren't allowed to vote against the party lines). Being released from that due to the plebiscite (which is going to cost tens of millions) certain members have maintained a stance that they are going to ignore the wishes of the electorate and vote according to their personal preference. Polls have repeatedly shown the majority of Australians are in favour of equality. They're already aware that they've lost popular support because of it
    – user7754
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 5:56

5 Answers 5


Yes, I have an example. The Romanian parliamentary reform referendum held in 2009. Even though the referendum was valid in accordance with the Romanian laws (i.e. a turnout of 50% plus one to render the result of the referendum valid) and the choice of the people was expressed, "due to lack of any legal limitations" the Parliament decided and still decides in this matter against the results of this Referendum. :)) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanian_parliamentary_reform_referendum,_2009


Sweden's referendums are advisory, although the political parties may volunteer to bind themselves to the referendum result.

Sweden had left-side traffic to begin with. In 1955 where was a referendum. The option to keep the traffic on the left side won by 82,9% compared with 15,5% for switching to the right side. Sweden kept driving on the left side, but in 1963 it was decided to switch to the right side without a new referendum, and in 1967 the switch was made.

In 1980 Sweden held a referendum on nuclear power. There were three options: 1) dismantle nuclear power, 2) dismantle nuclear power, with additional guidelines for the future energy policy, 3) dismantle nuclear power within 10 years. The second option won the referendum and the parliament decided all nuclear reactors should be stopped by 2010. In 1997 that decision was replaced by a "close at cabinet discression" policy, along with a ban on permitting new reactors. In 2009 and 2010 those policies were removed.

  • Was the second option “Stop using it in 25 years”? Because “keep it for 25 years” suggests at least 25 years or in any case, keeping nuclear power generation for the time being and revisiting the question later. And if it's the parliament (not the referendum itself) which translated that into a decision to close specific power plants, it can certainly change its mind (and building new power plants – presumably with updated technology – isn't even a clear reversal!)
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 23:34
  • @Relaxed I have updated the wording to reflect that. The time frame was actually never mentioned on the voting forms (you can see the text at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swedish_nuclear_power_referendum,_1980 ) but was publicly stated.
    – liftarn
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 7:48
  • @Relaxed The timeline was expressed as "Keep the existing and planned reactors for their technical lifetime", which at the period was believed to be 25 years. The last of Sweden's planned 12 reactors — Forsmark 3 — was scheduled to be operational by 1985. Therefore the end date then became 1985 + 25 = 2010.
    – MichaelK
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 8:37
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    So, wait, all 3 options were "dismantle", only differing in details, with no option to actually keep them? In other words, the people weren't the ones voting on whether to dismantle or keep nuclear reactors, thus changing that overarching policy did not go against their will.
    – Alice
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 6:57

The 2004 Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe was killed by two referenda held in France and the Netherlands within a few day of each other. The parliaments in each of these two countries did not ratify that particular treaty so they did not decide against the results of the referendum in a narrow sense.

But the bulk of the treaty's contents did become the law of the EU through the Lisbon treaty. One significant difference is that the word “constitution” was dropped and the new treaty was presented as an amendment to exiting treaties rather than a clean slate. Beyond that however, all the planned changes to the exiting procedures and institutions were enacted without going through another referendum in either France, the Netherlands or any of the other countries that planned one on the 2005 treaty (save for Ireland, where all EU treaties are put to a referendum following a court decision – and the government had to organise two referenda to get that one through!).


The Brexit referendum itself is an example.

The result was 52/48 in favour of leaving. To represent that the remain side's views should be considered, as democracy is supposed to be representative rather than a tyranny of the majority.

Furthermore, the referendum was only on the question of leaving the EU. It didn't say anything about the single market or customs union, and in fact many prominent leave campaigners stated clearly on multiple occasions that there was no suggestion of leaving those institutions. Thus the current government policy of leaving them both is ignoring the proposal that was voted on and doing something entirely different.

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    -1 "To represent that the remain side's views should be considered, as democracy is supposed to be representative rather than a tyranny of the majority." A complete misrepresentation of the question, as well as democracy. With your logic, there is no point having a referendum ever as long as each option will garner a single vote.
    – user19831
    Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 13:54
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    Additionally, although less egregious, doing additional things not in the referendum cannot be called ignoring the referendum if the referendum's result is honoured.
    – user19831
    Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 14:00
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    @Orangesandlemons Considering that Brexit was advertised as just leaving the EU, and even that was only accepted by a small majority, the clear outcome of the referendum was that even a very soft Brexit only had marginal support. Later on at the General Election, May's vision of a hard Brexit was actually rejected and she ended up with a minority. There was a huge surge in support for Labour who were advocating a soft Brexit.
    – user
    Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 15:19
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    the referendum was to leave the EU or not. Leave got more votes. The government is leaving the EU. Whilst the way they're setting out the future relationship may be faulty, and even possibly against the wishes of a majority of voters in the last GE, they have most certainly followed the referendum result.
    – user19831
    Commented Aug 7, 2018 at 16:49
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    @Orangesandlemons I'm not disputing the triggering of Article 50, although you could argue that the timing of it was a dereliction of duty to come up with a plan first. The issue is all the other stuff that ignored the referendum result, of which the binary in/out of the EU question was only a part. The referendum is often cited as justification for those actions, so will be judged by how well they reflect the referendum result.
    – user
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 13:58

One of the most obvious examples would be the referendum on USSR preservation. 77% voted for preserving USSR as a single state, but some people in the governments of the Republics decided otherwise.

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