Referendum Politics


No one in England is used to taking part in a referendum and this has led to some very half baked comments from politicians, pundits, and the public about the 2016 European Union referendum. There was of course a previous in out European Union referendum in 1975, but that is too long ago for most people to remember even if they were old enough to take part. More recently in 2011 there was the referendum on scrapping the first past the post electoral system, but so few people took part that most people are unaware that it happened. The story is very different in the other countries of the United Kingdom. Scotland and Wales each had a referendum that paved the way for the devolved institutions in their respective countries. Scotland really liked the idea and had a another one in 2014, but this time the proposition, to create an independent Scotland, was rejected. Their fascination with referendum politics has not disappeared though and that once in a generation referendum has triggered a constant debate over when they can have the next one. Wales narrowly voted for devolution and that appears to have scared them off and they lack the Scottish love for that particular democratic mechanism. Northern Ireland did not have the referendum on its current devolved powers until 1998 in the wake of that year's Belfast Agreement, which also triggered a referendum in the Republic of Ireland. London got in on the act in 1998 and are the one part of England to have a referendum that was not United Kingdom wide. Again the other countries are different as Northern Ireland voted no in a 1973 referendum on becoming part of the Republic of Ireland, while Wales and Scotland simultaneously rejected devolution in 1970 referendums.

So while England is not used to referendums those upset at being on the losing side of the 2016 European Union referendum should not deride a referendum as the device of dictators. They might have a vague recollection of how Adolf Hitler liked to used referendums as part of a land grab, but conveniently forget that he doubled that up with brutal voter intimidation. The bewildered remain supporters like to point to two of the four countries of the United Kingdom voting to stay, so they should not accuse them of being dictators as Scotland and Northern Ireland are the most referendum positive parts of the four part kingdom. In addition this accusation based on an ill-remembered school history lesson is somewhat odd coming from those in outcry at the thought of leaving the European Union. This is particularly the case for those threatening a new war in Ireland, a country that by law must hold a referendum to make changes to its constitution. When new countries have joined the European Union they have in all but two cases held a referendum, one exception was Cyprus the other the United Kingdom. Those in favour of the permanent Euro opt-out held by the United Kingdom should note that the only remaining European Union country with such an opt-out is Denmark, which won that right by voting against the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum. The implied Hitler references are particularly sickening when applied to the following countries who have held European Union related referendums and who suffered brutal occupation under Hitler's Germany: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia. So, please, no matter how upset you are about the referendum result stop referring to over half the European Union as Little Hitlers.

I am from Northern Ireland of part Welsh and part Scottish descent, but while the land of my birth acquainted me with voter intimidation the only referendums I have taken part in are the sole Welsh one and the 2011 and 2016 United Kingdom ones. My main ethnic background is Scottish, but I've never lived there and so never voted there. I am 2-1 in referendums as I voted for Welsh devolution (one week after drinking to Scotland's more conclusive vote), was one of the few to vote for electoral reform in 2011, and one of the one and half million Londoners to vote to leave the European Union in 2016. To put that number in context the population of my home country of Northern Ireland, which voted to remain, is equal to those who voted to leave in London. So that puts a different spin on the claims that Scotland and Northern Ireland should be allowed to remain in the European Union. The remain majority in Northern Ireland was 91265 and voting across the country split on ethnic grounds with those areas that are predominantly populated by those of a Protestant heritage voting for leave: East Antrim, East Belfast, North Antrim, Lagan Valley, South Antrim, South Down, Strangford, and Upper Bann. This is despite the unionist population being divided over leave or remain and means that those calling for the Brexit campaigning First Minister to only speak up for remain would be more likely to lose the peace than to win it.

The key thing the unenlightened English need to learn about referendums is that the only thing you learn from a referendum is what the referendum asked. That sits more easily in the Celtic countries than it does in England, because Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are used to the national question dominating politics. Political life in England is more typically centred around issues of class and so is used to a more disparate range of questions being top of the political agenda. This was evident in the campaigning and punditry in England around the referendum. Politics is always discussed in party political terms in England and it continued that way in the referendum, despite a referendum being one person one vote. A referendum is a temporary timeout from the power of politicians and gives the people the change to give parliament a decision to implement. Yet English campaigning was based on who has the Labour voters in the pocket and who will the Conservative voters follow. This has culminated in the idiocy of the Labour Party MPs who are trying to oust their leader on the grounds that he lost the referendum vote for Labour. The referendum was not Labour's to win or lose, but was a simple multiple choice of only two options. Whether an individual voter normally votes for a Labour politician to legislate on their behalf is neither here nor there. In a referendum the people are legislating for themselves and so issues of political party do not come into play.

The referendum ballot paper asked "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" As that does not have a yes or no answer the voting boxes repeated the two contradictory positions: Remain a member of the European Union and Leave the European Union. It was a simple either or question or as the Prime Minister David Cameron promoted it an in or out referendum. The ungarnished simplicity of the two options means that any claims that the result means anything other than remain or leave are completely spurious. Neither of the options contained the phrase "because of immigrants" or "due to the economic consequences" so despite the prominence of those two issues in how politicians campaigned and the media reported they are nothing to do with the result. In particular disgruntled remain campaigners cannot attribute either racism or xenophobia to the 17 million leave voters. The only valid attribution is that leave voters selected the option "Leave the European Union." Nor was the voter asked to signify their agreement with an option only if everything that politicians said in favour of that option is completely true. So in a referendum the fact that a politician backtracks after the vote is counted does not invalidate the result. A referendum is based entirely on the question on the ballot paper. If a voter chooses to be influenced by a politician or pressure group that is up to them, but if they later discover that they were not told the whole truth that is not the fault of the ballot paper and therefore does not invalidate the referendum result.

The referendum has taken place on a United Kingdom wide basis and the vote was narrowly to leave the European Union. The basis of a referendum cannot be changed afterwards because you do not like the result. It was a simple majority so a victory for leave over remain of 51.9% to 48.1% is conclusive and not grounds for a second vote. The referendum was not legally binding, but nor have any other referendums been binding with the exception of the 2011 electoral reform referendum. As that referendum was lost we do not know how parliament would have processed a binding referendum. It makes sense for a referendum to be non binding due to the United Kingdom's principle of parliamentary democracy. That does not mean that democracy is served by ignoring the referendum result, which could become the official position of the Liberal Democrats if its leader Tim Farron has his way. He is doing so on the basis of his party's long term pro European Union stance and so at least he is going on the basis of what leave voters actually voted for and not making up what they voted for. Yet he is completely out of touch and has firmly reestablished the perception of the Liberal Democrats as wealthy advocates of civil rights for fellow members of their wealthy set. His party was close to going out of business and he is probably hoping to cream off most of the Labour MPs who are currently trying to prevent the working classes taking their party back.

The response in Westminster and among the liberal media to the referendum result is merely confirming the view that they are both out of touch and both out to shaft the working classes. The referendum says leave; get over it.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved