Please - a Rest from Referendums

By Jamieson, Bill | The Scotsman, October 12, 2017 | Go to article overview

Please - a Rest from Referendums


Jamieson, Bill, The Scotsman


F ew 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 selfdestruction? 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 rerun 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 40 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. …

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