Book review: Referendums and Ethnic Conflict

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YOU wait years for an independence referendum then several come along all at once.

Just a few days ago plans emerged for a plebiscite in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, while in Scotland, of course, a ballot is less than three months away.

Matt Qvortrup’s engaging new study, Referendums And Ethnic Conflict, isn’t actually about Scotland, but that is its strength, for it puts what’s happening later this year in context – historically and geopolitically.

And as his “exhaustive list” of more than 200 “ethnonational” referendums held since 1791 reveals, the Scottish experience isn’t that novel, nor even unprecedented within the UK: the 1973 border poll and 1998 referendum offering bad and good examples of secession being tackled in a Northern Irish context.

Qvortrup is good with historical tit-bits. Initially, the British resisted referendums (believing Parliament to be sovereign), but in the late 19th century AV Dicey advocated their use as “an alternative second chamber”, as did the Scottish Unionist MP Noel Skelton in his 1922 manifesto for political reform.

By the early 21st century referendums were a fixture of the British constitutional system, the UK having learned to be pragmatic on the issue of secession, unlike the US (or rather Alaska’s Supreme Court) which, in 2006, ruled that even a referendum on seeking a legal path to independence would be ultra vires.

The book also busts a few myths, chiefly that no territory has ever opted to join a bigger union, Puerto Rico and Newfoundland did, while in 1955, Malta wanted, but was not granted, political union with the UK.

Although it’s an academic text – complete with formulae and occasional jargon – Qvortrup writes cogently and his book should be of interest to any constitutional geek.

As a general rule, he concludes, referendums result in “peaceful outcomes” only when both parties agree on its legitimacy. That was the case in Northern Ireland in 1998 and, usefully, will also be the case later this year in Scotland.