Few developments in modern politics have been as seductive – and their outcomes more problematic – than the cry for referendums. Their appeal is popular and their outcomes surely compelling. Who would not wish for some divisive issue to be resolved by giving the people a vote through a national referendum?
But results have failed to live up to expectation. Scotland’s independence referendum in September 2014; the UK Brexit referendum in June 2016 and the Catalan independence referendum this month: all three promised a definitive resolution of highly divisive and contentious issues. But all three are wreathed in controversy and their outcomes challenged. This is despite the fact that the turn-out for both votes were the highest recorded for an election or referendum in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage.
The provenance of the Brexit vote in particular has been challenged by ‘Remainers’ on the grounds that those who voted for Brexit did not understand the issues, or were deluded or misled by populists.
Are we chastened by these experiences? Are we more circumspect in calling for more? Or are we condemned to repeat the experience to the point of a sovereign self-destruction?
At the SNP party conference this week, First Minister and party leader Nicola Sturgeon held the door open for not one but two more referendums: another re-run of the Scottish independence vote; and a referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Other speakers, including former MP Angus Robertson and the young firebrand MP Mhairi Black, were loudly cheered when they urged a second ‘indyref’ – and the minimum of delay.
Ms Sturgeon has made her preference clear on Brexit question: she is an ardent EU supporter and would like the UK to retain full membership of the EU Single Market and the Customs Union, no matter what the voters thought (or didn’t think) in last year’s referendum.
Why do we imagine more referendums might have more success in resolving political division than the ones we have held already? If a second vote is held to have greater validity than the first, would not a third be better? Or a fourth better still?
And where would a second vote on EU membership leave us? Indeed, a referendum on the terms of a Brexit ‘settlement’ opens the fiery possibility of a ‘No’ vote that would not only render null and void last year’s referendum result but also leave the UK having to repeal the parliamentary vote on Article 50 and to re-negotiate the terms of continuing EU membership.
That could see the UK losing its budget contribution rebate and having to give a solid commitment to the EU – in particular, to further European integration: “ever closer union”.
In such a circumstance, should there not be a further referendum to agree this? Some may regard this as a reasonable price to pay for a lasting settlement of the EU issue after years of division and uncertainty. Others would view it as little short of a national humiliation and an unacceptable loss of sovereignty.
Would this really settle an issue that has been a major source of contention in UK politics for the past forty years? Would it bring us together – or further entrench division?
No-one wishes to see a repeat of the explosive circumstances of the Catalan referendum: an event that has divided the SNP. Party members have strongly supported the Catalan cause and spoken out against the violent, truncheon-wielding interventions of the Spanish police to prevent the vote taking place.
EU officials have long been fearful that Catalan independence would feed a populist desire for separatist movements elsewhere in Europe, as if the wayward behaviour of the populist Hungarian and Polish governments were not enough for Brussels to contend with.
Catalonia’s drive to secede from Spain is fuelling calls for independence in ethnic pockets across the Balkans – an explosive ambition in a region where nationalist violence claimed tens of thousands of lives in the 1990s. Ethnic nationalists are drawing inspiration from the events in Catalonia: Why, they argue, don’t we do the same?
Little wonder there is unease within the SNP – a party whose raison d’etre is political independence but which is also avowedly pro-EU. Its members now look far from keen on the realities of “ever closer union” and highly critical of the failure of the EU to condemn the Madrid government for the repressive activities of the Spanish police.
All this poses a dilemma for the party leadership and one from which insistence on yet more referendums offers little escape. Party members may be highly sympathetic to the Catalan cause. But senior officials are anxious to avoid compromising the party’s relationship with EU leaders or falling foul of Madrid for fear that Spain might oppose a future Scottish application for EU membership.
Catalan independence sympathisers also have to reckon with the late but massive show of support for the Spanish government on the streets of Barcelona – reminiscent of the huge rally for General de Gaulle after the Paris student riots of 1968 threatened to topple the Fifth Republic. When it comes to “the voice of the people”, are they not also the people?
Here in the UK we have drifted dangerously towards a blanket acceptance of resort to plebiscite – justified on the argument that certain issues can only be resolved by referendums but without being at all clear on what the criteria are and what the qualifications might be.
There may in certain circumstances be an argument for referendums – held under the rule of law and with safeguards in place to ensure that a clear majority – say, 60 per cent – are in favour of constitutional change.
Do referendums enhance democracy? Germany, where they were deployed to catastrophic effect by the Nazis, now disavows them. Venezuela lived and breathed them – as the economy collapsed.
They do not necessarily enhance trust and unity in a democracy. And no democracy worthy of the name can survive without clear and firm constraints to protect the vulnerable, be they ethnic minorities, religious groups, gays and those deemed to be “the rich”: That is why democratic societies have imposed protections such as individual rights, freedom of the press, property rights and restrictions on confiscatory, retrospective legislation. There is more – much more – to a people’s democracy than crude majoritarianism. A representative parliament, obliged to debate, compromise and seek resolution by accommodation remains the better if slow and imperfect way to go.
“Let’s have another referendum”? Or maybe two? Or even three? Be careful what you wish for. Public forbearance with constant agitation and attempts to re-write the constitutional settlement by which we live may well break under the constant stress and strain placed on everyday life.
We need a break from this. Carry on as we are – with ever deeper division, families and communities split, civil disturbance and fighting in the streets – and we may end with the worst of all worlds: a bleak and divided polity of endless referendums while the key concerns of government sought by the public – health, well-being and economic growth – are pushed to second place.