People’s Vote hokum shows the British system is not built for referendums

BY Alastair Benn | alastair_benn   /  6 November 2018

“We need a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal.” It’s quite hard to work out why that phrase sticks in the craw. Perhaps it is the sublime speciousness of it – elite distrust of popular democracy rejigged as “real democracy”. Or perhaps it’s the inauthenticity of it – the aping of the language of populism without absorbing the meaning of its anti-establishment ethic.

But there’s another more interesting dimension to it too. The fact that the logic of a “People’s Vote” (whereby the “People” can now, supposedly, get the right answer to the question they were previously duped into answering all wrong) is so superficially compelling to its activist base – and to its luminous celebrity proponents – illustrates just how alien referendums are to the British democratic ethos.

We’ve only ever had three referendums across the whole of the UK – in 1975 on remaining in the then Common Market, in 2011 on replacing first past the post with the alternative vote system for general elections, and in 2016 on the European question again.

After 1975 and 2011, there was little sense that it was worth spending energy on rejecting the outcome tout court, partly because we faced a choice between two fairly well-known quantities. But it was the 2014 Scottish independence referendum which provided the model for the 2016 Brexit referendum and set its tone.

Here’s how it played out in Scotland.

The 1998 Scotland Act established that all constitutional issues would be the preserve of the UK Parliament. It was technically possible for London to veto all demands for a Scottish referendum, but the mandate secured by the SNP at the 2011 Holyrood elections made a compelling emotional case for a popular vote on the issue.

Cameron was prepared to listen (unlike Thatcher and Major who were solidly against devolution, while Scotland kept on returning larger and larger Labour majorities even though its government remained Tory), so he granted the Scots their vote, but with some nifty provisos.

Cameron made sure that it was a yes/no vote rather than a three-way vote or a referendum on further devolution. The date and wording would be set by the Scottish side. That suited the SNP, who chose a positive question – ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’

Although most Scots are small-n nationalists, the option of “devo max” was kept off the ballot. Scots want greater self-government, but remain overwhelmingly attached to the Union, and it might not have been so fanciful to see a majority in 2013 for the transfer of full legislative and fiscal powers to Edinburgh, while foreign policy, defence, monetary policy and the Crown remained in London.

At the time the logic seemed compelling. If the people delivered a no, there could be no way back for the Nats. But in his bid to settle the question for a generation, Cameron permanently ossified the debate at its extremes.

After Scotland entered the Union in 1707, it nevertheless retained a distinctive political culture (its own legal and education system and conception of religious rights), but it’s true that Unionism became the dominant mode of Scottish politics for the next two centuries – that odd (but potent) cocktail of Sir Walter Scott-style puff romanticising, tartan, biscuits, the land of ‘the mountain and the glen’, and vigorous participation in the British imperial project, in commerce, governance and military affairs.

In 1997, at the first time of asking, it felt like time to adjust Unionism to Scotland’s modern politics, to listen to the Scottish aspiration for greater self-determination and to deliver genuine devolved power. In 2013, it felt right to augment that further. But the referendum question militated against a useful compromise and shifted the cause of self-determination into a vicious cultural conflict, a poison that is yet to be drained from the national consciousness.

In 2016, Cameron thought he could pull off the same trick: by setting the terms of the question round a known thing (membership of the EU) and a vast unknown. Surely people wouldn’t be beguiled by the “cliff-edge” option?

The resulting vote triggered the forces that have so blunted our political sensibilities since 2016, created Brexiteers out of Eurosceptics, Europhiles out of Remainers, and sent the hitherto sane into the People’s Vote camp.

The Brexit coalition was fired by a complex fusion of identity, ideology and historic uneasiness with our place in the European project. But the tone of the debate on both the Remain and the Leave side with its constellation of nasty rhetoric and stats-driven hokum was a predictable product of the confusion generated by demanding a simple yes-no vote in a constitutional set-up ill-suited to cope with it.

Forcing binary choices at the ballot box doesn’t work in a parliamentary system with substantial devolution. The British system is not built for referendums. The last thing it needs is another one.