Joyce McMillan: Thatcher may have been right about referendums

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Referendums in Scotland, UK and Catalonia have shown they may actually weaken democratic institutions and bolster demagogues, writes Joyce McMillan.

In Catalonia, just four days before Christmas, the people go to the polls to elect a new regional government. Journalists from the UK fly into Barcelona to assess the mood; their conclusion is that Catalan society remains too deeply divided over independence for the election to resolve anything, and that the national question – in or out, leave or remain – is “sucking the life” out of Catalan politics and society, leaving little room for anything else.

Riot police are confronted by an angry crowd in Catalonia after officers confiscated ballot boxes during the controversial referendum on independence (Picture: Getty)

Riot police are confronted by an angry crowd in Catalonia after officers confiscated ballot boxes during the controversial referendum on independence (Picture: Getty)

Very few of those British observers, though, seem conscious that they are coming from a country which is now undergoing exactly the same experience; a place where the great matter of Brexit – in or out, leave or remain – has come to dominate day-to-day politics almost entirely. Like a Russian doll of political stalemate and paralysis, the British situation is further complicated by the continuing restlessness of Scotland, which is itself divided almost down the middle on the matter of independence, and which voted strongly to remain in the EU. And what all three of these situations have in common – apart from their basic leave-or-remain dynamic – is that over the last few years, each one has been subject to a popular referendum which was supposed to resolve the matter, and which has done the exact opposite. The Catalan independence referendum of November this year was something of a special case, held in defiance of Spanish law by the Catalan government after Madrid refused to consent to a vote, and therefore simply ignored by those who disliked the outcome.

The two referendums held here in the UK, by contrast, were fully official affairs, with the Scottish independence vote of September 2014 recognised in advance as binding by both Scottish and UK governments. Yet still, here as in Catalonia, the application of the referendum remedy to a situation where opinion is deeply divided has resolved little; and at this year’s end, it is perhaps worth pausing to reflect on Britain’s recent crash-course on referendum politics – on its dangers, and on the limits of what it can achieve.

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The Scottish referendum of 2014, for example, was in some ways a model of a well-conducted and peaceful plebiscite; there was almost no violence throughout a long campaign, and a proposal from those demanding change that ran to 600 pages, generating debate that was heated, but also often fairly productive. Yet still, it is worrying to consider what might have happened if the Yes campaign had won with a margin as narrow as the 52-48 per cent won by the EU Leave campaign in 2016; and how on Earth a fledgling Scottish Government, beset by financial problems, would have coped with a situation in which half of the population, and most areas outside the central belt, were not on board for the national project at all.

If the Scottish referendum has left the nation divided, though, its conduct still seem fairly exemplary compared with the EU vote of 2016, a poll surely destined to feature extensively in future studies on how not to hold a referendum. Its origin was ill-fated; David Cameron made a commitment to hold an EU referendum in the Tory election manifesto of 2015, never imagining that he would win the overall majority that would oblige him to do it. He then compounded his mistake by assuming – along with almost every other politician and pundit at the time – that he would win the referendum fairly easily.

He therefore made no provision to seek more than a bare majority for leaving the EU, or to double-lock the result by requiring the consent of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments; and he also thought it unnecessary either to prepare for a possible leave result, or to require the Leave campaign to do so, by producing a detailed manifesto.

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The outcome has been the 18 months of disarray that we have seen from Theresa May’s Government, which has essentially taken more than a year to conclude a preliminary agreement that should have been the work of a couple of months. And all this is to say nothing of the other troubling aspects of the EU referendum campaign, including the colossal factual inaccuracy of much of the material circulating at the time, and the apparent inability of the Electoral Commission to control and properly monitor the funding of the campaigns.

It’s tempting, in other words, to conclude that it is always unwise to hold referendums, unless – as with the Scottish Parliament referendum of 1997 – you are already pretty certain of the result. We might even, for once, agree with Margaret Thatcher, who in 1975 described referendums as “a device of dictators and demagogues”; it is certainly strange to hear so many of Lady Thatcher’s Tory disciples, today, talking about that slender vote of June last year as “the will of the people”, as if the 48 per cent who voted to remain simply no longer existed.

What’s clear, though, is that before any part of the UK is tempted to hold another referendum on a matter of great constitutional significance, we should take advice from those who have more experience of the referendum game. When parties promise referendums in election manifestoes, they should be held more strictly to account on whether they are willing and able to deal with the whole range of possible results. When we are planning such votes, we should ask ourselves why so many constitutions, around the world, demand a two-thirds majority for major institutional changes.

And we should consider how profound differences about the future of our country – first foregrounded, polarised, and hardened into entrenched positions, and then left unresolved – leave us weaker both in shaping our own futures, and in tackling the everyday politics of health and education, employment and social support. A device of dictators and demagogues? Maybe not always. Our recent experience, though, reveals that referendums can easily leave demagogues strengthened, and our representative institutions weakened. As we approach the season of reconciliation, after this tumultuous time in politics, we should be asking ourselves what kinds of civic institutions and political structures are now most likely to help us to heal those wounds, to live with our differences, and to turn towards the future.