This is the biggest democratic moment of our generation – but could the government undermine the whole thing?
Technically, yes. Referendums in the UK aren’t legally binding, meaning they are advisory rather than mandatory, reports the Financial Times.
So, no matter what the country decides, the government has the power to ignore the will of the people. But will they?
Obviously, it depends on the result.
You’d imagine it would be easier to ignore a close-run result than a landslide for either side. You’d also think that a government would have to be crazy to call a referendum only to ignore it.
But it has happened before.
In Sweden, in 1955, they held a referendum asking the country if they wanted to change the side of the road that they drove on.
At the time, Sweden, like the UK, drove on the left. But, unlike the UK, they shared borders with Finland and Norway who drove on the other side.
Unsurprisingly, this caused total chaos, with Swedes getting into car crashes whenever they travelled abroad and tourists frequently dying on Swedish roads.
It also must have made driving across the border somewhat confusing.
However, despite the deaths and many other convincing arguments to start driving on the right like their neighbours, when the country held a referendum, 83 per cent of Swedes voted to keep driving on the left.
But their government ignored them. They changed sides anyway. Because they’d looked at the facts as they saw them and believed going against the people would be best for the people.
‘H Day’ or ‘Högertrafikomläggningen’ (the right-hand traffic switch) finally happened on September 3, 1967. It was okay – a bit confusing and weird for people, but deaths did go down as the government predicted.
So there is a precedent for a Western democracy ignoring a landslide referendum to push through huge changes against the will of the people. Legally, there is nothing stopping Westminster following in the Swedes’ footsteps and ignoring a referendum result that they don’t like.
However, the British government is seriously split on what they want this result to be.
Ignoring the result, even if it’s a very close result, could tear the Conservatives apart from the inside. There would almost certainly be protests and faith in politicians (not exactly riding high at the moment) would plummet.
However the EU Referendum plays out, in the UK, at least 40 per cent of the country is going to be disappointed. But if the government decides to ignore the result then they could enrage everyone.