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The Problem With Plebiscites

It seems likely now that Scottish independence will be delivered by referendum. But George Marsden argues that there could be a better way.


Tony Benn, a good republican and opponent of the House of Lords, liked to quip that he did not want his country run by hereditary legislators for the same reason that he did not want his teeth looked at by a hereditary dentist. This is a pretty lame analogy, as it goes; it so obviously invites the response - “and nor would I want a popularly elected one” - that I’m sure someone must have said that to him at least once. But, then again, maybe everyone who met him felt it was too presumptuous to go about ruining the bon-mots of the former Viscount Stansgate.


With that rejoinder tagged on, however, it does start to take on the appearance as a useful gobbet of political wisdom. For a handy gloss, I will provide this: that a popular vote is as often an inappropriate method of governance as handing over all responsibility to a limited group of hereditary rulers. But, alas, that isn’t a very common reflection in Britain today, a country of directly elected mayors and police and crime commissioners, which will likely see a democratic upper house in the near future. It hasn’t yet been a whole century since universal suffrage was granted (all men could vote after 1918 but not all women until 1928), but the will of the people has since become the only authority upon which our politics can rest. You needn’t agree that giving every man and woman a say in how their country is run was a mistake (as I don’t) to also say that expanding the franchise has had some unwanted consequences; our incapacity to preserve a mixed constitution is one, the fact that Scottish and Welsh children now have a vote is another.


But this dislike of too turbo-democracy is particularly annoying for me: a Leave voter who warms to the idea of Scottish independence. As two great constitutional changes that have and will (if it comes about) rely on referendums, I should be opposed to both; but as it happens, I don’t think that being convinced of the merits of Euroscepticism, nor a belief in Scotland’s nationhood, need be attached to an approval of the likely method of realising them —and neither should you. It is possible to like the end and dislike the probable means that reach it. For which reason, my conscience doesn’t suffer the slightest twinge for telling you why I think referendums are best avoided.


But it is obvious why referendums are preferred, here and elsewhere in the world. For starters, they’re very good at helping to avoid the violence that marked the independence struggles of the past; Irish history is very much British history too, and we should be glad that we don’t need to repeat the events of our very recent past. But there is an advantage beyond that, an advantage conferred by the changes brought about by the adoption of universal democracy I just mentioned. The mere fact that democracy is acknowledged as an absolute good in Britain means no government has the ability to coherently oppose any legal independence referendum; the will of the people is considered sacrosanct by everyone both left and right; so much so that if any one of the constituent peoples of the union want to leave, no unionist force could even muster the moral language necessary to fully denounce it. This is probably proved by the very fact that the British government have granted at least one such referendum.


Thus, any British government’s attempt to prevent a referendum on independence could only be mounted by contradicting its own stated principles. Because of which, it seems like the door is always open for any of Britain’s constituent nations; they merely need to prove that exiting the union is the settled will of the people, and the government is bound to respect the decision.


Which perhaps accounts for the fact that the referendum is as closely associated with national independence today as armed struggle was a century ago; so synonymous are the two that the SNP has almost no firm objective other than securing a referendum. It really is as simple, as painless, as winning a vote. And what more legitimate method for establishing national independence can there be than basing it on the national will? The collective decision of the whole nation is unanswerable.


But since 2014, and even more so since 2016, the belief in referendums as the easy path to independence must surely be considered naïve. The last seven years have been a good case study in the cost of mass plebiscites, the first lesson of which is that the notion that referendums allow us to comfortably settle an issue by determining what the nation’s will is, is patently false. Neither the Scottish referendum of 2014 nor the Brexit referendum of 2016 delivered a resounding majority for the winning side—55% in the first, and 52% in the latter.

Why should we be troubled by this? After all, governments are formed after winning a far lower percentage of the votes in general elections. The problem is that it makes the claim that the winner of a referendum is the authentic representative of the people’s will totally spurious, and given that’s it the “will of the people” that plebiscites are called to uncover, it leads to the whole project being undermined.


The last two referendums have been unable to command an unanswerable majority; and in the case of the one referendum that did lead to a change in the status-quo, the winner’s claim to represent the national will was so obviously untrue that it came up against a very credible opposition. Obviously, the spectacle of a thing called the “People’s Vote” being led by Alistair Campbell and almost the entire business community was laughable, but given that 48% of the British people voted to remain one cannot so easily dismiss the movement as an elitist tantrum. Anyone hoping that a ‘Yes’ vote will win by a landslide and that post-referendum Scotland will avoid the same issue will find all his finger crossing to have been futile.


So rather than confidently determining what any given society should do, the real effect of plebiscitary democracy seems to be to split that society into two factions who go to war during the referendum itself, and then squabble after the result when the fairness of the vote is called into doubt. Then again, you might say that such hardships cannot be avoided and that the founding of any new independent state is likely going to generate hot debates on almost every issue. This is true, but can you imagine the difficulties of founding a new constitution, then forming a new relationship with the rest of Britain and Europe—and all the rest of it—while only last month almost half of the nation voted decidedly against it all?

As with Brexit Britain, an independent Scotland breached by plebiscite would have to deal with a sort of fifth column composed of a huge number of its own citizenry. I wonder how that would look? Hardcore-No Scotland would likely take the whole thing very badly. In place of People’s Vote marches maybe you’d see wildcat Orange Walks as the lodge attempt to tin-whistle the spirit of loyalism back into the rebellious burghs; The Royal Mile would grow familiar with drumming and fifing as every Apprentice Boyne LARPer from Ayr to Bathgate leaps at the opportunity to show off his father’s sash beyond the annual 12th of July spit-on-a-priest day. A lone Orangeman might set up camp in the Holyrood car park, sporting a tall tangerine hat and placards, letting everyone know that he won’t be leaving until the Act of Union is restored.


Even among unionists who don’t think that the P in SNP stands for Pope you’d still likely have some trouble. Just as remainer parliamentarians tried unifying Britain’s anti-Brexiters by founding a re-join party, I can see some Tory and Labour MSPs doing the same under the misguided hope that all isn’t lost. Another trouble with referendums is the fact that our system doesn’t confer the same legitimacy on them as elections, leaving the road open for their result to be challenged; just as the remainers in the previous parliament pinned their hopes on re-doing the vote because of this and that technicality, or on encouraging the courts to disregard the result altogether (rather than working for a split with Europe that would best preserve the benefits of EU membership), I predict enough disappointed unionist MSPs acting just as unhelpfully. “Scotland didn’t vote to be poorer!” said the blue rosette, and “The Russians helped them cheat! The Russians helped them cheat!” said the red. And all that when the Scottish government is navigating the country through one of the trickiest moments in its history.


This all raises the question of what I expect the national movement to do if I think referendums aren’t worth pursuing. The answer to that would probably require a dedicated essay of its own; but if you put a gun to my head and asked for a solution I’d say that a safer bet would be to increase the amount of sovereignty already in the hands of the Scottish legislature—a gradualist approach to independence, if you will. But to get to the point where that option looks attractive (not to mention viable) members of the Scottish national movement first need to grasp the potential for destruction that lies within the methods they champion. I just hope that the demolition men take the TNT safety course before they start laying their charges.

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