Referendums. Aren’t they great? A chance to exercise your democratic right on world changing issues that the vast majority of us don’t really comprehend. The purest form of democracy where our base instincts are what guide us in the ballot box and a protest vote could determine the outcome. A chance for politicians to include the general public in decisions that could affect generations of people, while completely negating their own responsibility as parliamentarians. A potentially binding decision in which only a tiny majority of the public actually agree with.
This may sound like a pessimistic appraisal, but I believe there is a modicum of truth in it. Referendums have hardly been out of the political discourse in the United Kingdom for well over five years now and this trend looks set to continue far into the foreseeable future.
Scotland, in particular, has been acutely affected by the phenomenon of the referendum. We have had two within twenty-one months of one another (I’m not including the Alternative vote referendum in 2011. It was such a non-event that ordering a cheese and onion pastie at Greggs was more memorable and the SNP-led Scottish Government has recently fired the starting pistol on a third divisive one as well.
But do they settle anything? I would have to say no. In Scotland, the ‘Yes’ campaign refused to concede defeat and unofficially the campaign never ended. The calls for Indyref2 started the very next day and just over two years later the SNP are passing legislation to hold another referendum, probably within the current lifetime of the Scottish Parliament. The debate over Scottish independence was not settled ‘for a generation’. Like the spectre at the Feast, its looming and melancholic presence can be felt by all of us.
The EU referendum was similar as well. Many of the foot soldiers of the ‘Remain’ campaign were equally as vocal as those on the ‘Yes’ campaign in 2014 and attempts to block the result, legal challenges, and an appeal to parliamentary or lords intervention have never ceased since. The forces that lose try to build coalitions to block the victor and believe that they have only lost because they have been cheated.
The side that ‘wins’ can be just as bad, but they at least have majority opinion on their side, which is about as close as you get to a clear decision during a referendum.
Of course, all these referendums have achieved is further reinforcing divisions in the U.K. Urban vs Rural; England and Wales vs Scotland and Northern Ireland; London vs the North of England; pro-immigration forces vs Anti-immigration forces. Brexit vs remain; Yes vs No. Opening up such unpredictable and unstable forces is never a good thing for a seemingly cohesive society and once opened how do you put such forces back in Pandora’s Box?
You essentially can’t. Once they’re out, they are allowed to run rampant across the land as the rise of the largely innocuous ‘see you Jimmy’ and its uglier cousin, ‘blood and soil’ nationalism in Scotland demonstrates. The spate of anti-immigrant hate crime and xenophobic attacks in England are probably at least related to forces that were let slip during the E.U. referendum as well. Such forces can’t be captured again and take on a life of their own, free of the will of the political masters that unleashed them.
The side that lost the referendum will, sometimes understandably, feel aggrieved by the decision, but with social media, you can create your own personal echo chamber where you only lost because the other side consists of cheating reprobates/the establishment/Wastemonster/MI5/quislings or the grossly uninformed. You, of course, are enlightened and made the right and informed choice, unlike the opposing forces.
But did you make an informed and enlightened choice? How much do you really know about the economy of the Eurozone or the refugee crisis? Did you look at the feasibility of currency union between England and Scotland? Did many of the people who voted ‘Yes’ consider what would have happened when oil prices plummeted to nearly £30 a barrel in January 2016 from the rather more impressive £120 in July 2014. Did you put all the potential issues in their full historical, cultural and political context? Of course, you didn’t (If you did, I congratulate you and please accept my humble apology). You need to work, raise children and pay the mortgage/rent, play Call of Duty and you also need to have some downtime occasionally as well.
Unless you are a proper news junkie, most of us catch a glance at the TV news, have a quick leaf through the Metro or look at a news app on their smartphone. And let’s be honest, many people in Britain have absolutely no interest in domestic or international events until referendums. I have met people like this, they are good people, they have been acquaintances and colleagues, emotionally mature and functional tax-paying members of our society. They’re just happily disinterested in politics, economics and cultural affairs and that’s their business.
Even at the EU referendum, 27.8% of the U.K. electorate didn’t even bother sauntering into the voting booth. In Glasgow, only 56.2 of voters exercised their democratic right in June 2016. Even though it was admittedly far lower, 15% of the Scottish population, totalling well over 600,00 people didn’t make it to the polling on the 18th of September 2014 either.
Some people are informed, some not, but for others, a referendum is just another opportunity to make a political statement about a particular party of government. In Scotland, the generational hatred of the Conservative Party was a major reason decision to vote ‘Yes’. As always, social media serves as the primary outlet for this. One woman voted ‘Yes’ because ‘I really hate the conservatives royals labour especially that cnt Cameron!’. Although anecdotal, it does represent a certain outlook of many during the independence referendum. By 2014 Scotland had been in political union with England since 1707 but rather than taking a longer term view, some people wanted to leave because they didn’t like the four-year-old administration of David Cameron. A similar section of the voting public acted the same way at the EU referendum. One man was so excited at getting to leave the EU in the hope that his vote would ‘stick it up Cameron’. Probably not the best way to make a decision about the future direction of the United Kingdom.
However, regardless of your interest in politics and economics, we are all equal in that we both have to put a cross in one of two boxes. Such a simplistic choice condenses an extraordinarily diverse and heavily loaded, complicated issue into a binary decision. This in itself creates two adversarial and opposing forces to begin with and already creates two rival, antagonistic camps, ready to do battle with one another. There will obviously be a political continuum in each opposing group, stretching across the traditional left-right discourse. This can’t be helped, it’s the nature of politics, but this can’t ever be reflected in a binary choice. A referendum can’t have 10 different scenarios on it. It wouldn’t be practical, but it no way reflects the nuances of the human world with its viewpoints, debates, personalities and opinions.
This simplistic political nature can lead to a simplistic discourse. Politicians can use this to their advantage. People tend to remember politicians in Scotland hoping to emulate the nearly £500 billion oil fund that Norway has. The £350 million a week for the NHS on the ‘Leave’ bus was the primary mantra for the entire campaign and is probably the only statistic that most of us now remember, even though it has now been jettisoned by those who proclaimed it.
Referendums might be simplistic politically but they make up for it with emotional heft. Party politics and general elections are a chance to engage the brain a bit more, with more nuanced arguments and in-depth thought. But referendums tend to be on more emotional issues and people tend to vote with the heart. Issues of identity, migration, who are you are as a person: Scottish or British? integrationist or non-integrationist? This is problematic as the more emotional the issue the less rational we tend to act, behave and thus vote. General elections tend to be undertaken with a bit more decorum. Debates during referendums degenerate into shouting matches in rapid succession.
Of course, even if the decision has catastrophic economic, political and social consequences, politicians aren’t to blame, they are only enacting the democratic will of the British people. To be fair, it can be hard to argue otherwise.
In the age of the ‘constant campaign’ and sound bite politics, referendums will probably become more common. With people increasingly using social media as their primary source of information they already suffer from ‘confirmation bias’ and seek out sources of information that fit their own, preconceived opinions. This trend will probably continue unabated as politics becomes increasing narrow and personal. The interesting question is, is this spate of referendums directly causing more division or merely expressing long dormant existing ones?
If only we possessed some sort of large, democratically elected body, full of individuals who we have mandated to make complex decisions on our behalf. A place where lawmakers could have informed debates about these issues. I mean, it wouldn’t be a dictatorship, we would elect them, say every four or five years. Now where would we find such as institution…