Why we need to change our referendums – and how

Why we need to change our referendums – and how

by Victor Clements
article from Thursday 5, September, 2019

THERE HAVE BEEN two referendums in Scotland in the last five years; the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 and the referendum on membership of the European Union in 2016. Both referendums were intended to address constitutional issues that parliamentary politics appeared incapable of dealing with. However, neither referendum has resolved the issue that it was intended to resolve. If anything, each referendum has made that particular issue worse with the debate becoming more intractable and there now being real life repercussions related to the uncertainty created.

In both cases, the expectation of those who lost the referendum appears to be that it should be re-run on the same basis, but if the initial referendums did not resolve the issues involved, then how might a re-run on the same basis create anything different?

We have to ask, “What have we learned from all this?”

The Scottish Government Referendums (Scotland) Bill is being discussed this month. There are a number of areas that are missing from it that would avoid the issue that have arisen from the 2014 Scottish Independence and EU referendums. One of them, the need for a higher threshold, is the subject of a Petition submitted to the Holyrood Petitions Committee  by members of Scotland Matters, calling on the Scottish Parliament to "urge the Scottish Government to ensure that any referendum advocating constitutional change should have at least a two thirds majority for it to succeed. 

It can be read and signed here

Scotland Matters is an Aberdeenshire based pro-UK group, and while we believe that what we are suggesting will strengthen the pro-UK position, our views are primarily directed to that one third of the population who will support whatever position is genuinely better for the future of Scotland, our country, and this is what matters most to us. For everyone involved in this debate, we want greater transparency in the political narrative that currently exists.

A Charter for Future Referendums in Scotland

While Scotland Matters do not support new referendums on either constitutional issue, we recognise that they may arise again. Our focus is on ensuring that we are not subjected to the same process with the same disputed result, whatever the actual outcome of any ballot might be.

The following three suggestions are put forward to strengthen any future referendum process in Scotland.

1 – A Two Stage Process. Both referendums in recent years have been on hypothetical and ill defined outcomes, when the purpose of a referendum is to seek the consent of the people to move from the current constitutional position to a new and agreed alternative that needs to be properly understood. The alternative needs to be clearly defined if people are to give their informed consent. We therefore need a two-stage process, where the first stage is to achieve a mandate for negotiation, and the second stage is to have a referendum on the negotiated settlement.

Stage 1 could be achieved either by an election to the Scottish Parliament, or an indicative referendum vote. There is no need to die in a ditch over the means by which the mandate is secured, the priority is to ensure that the negotiated settlement is fully understood and that everyone is then voting on the same thing. This would be difficult, but it can be done, with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland being a good example. In that instance, virtually everyone agreed what was being voted on, and that politicians had developed the proposition as far as they could.

For the avoidance of any doubt, this is not an argument for a “People’s Vote” on Brexit. The 2014 Scottish independence proposal was rejected, but the 2016 Brexit proposal was endorsed by the electorate, however flawed that might have been. We cannot now change the rules on that after the event, but what we can say is that if the Brexit vote did not resolve that issue, then a People’s Vote organised on the same basis will not resolve it either.

2 – A higher mandate for success. This will be controversial, but the evidence to support this is strong. The 55:45 result in 2014 was not deemed to be decisive so, by definition, a decisive majority needs to be greater than this. By rejecting the 2014 vote, the independence movement has effectively provided us with the necessary banjo to hit this particular door with. That decision has now rebounded on them, and we need to make this argument.

In almost any organization that we might be involved with in everyday life, a two-thirds majority is required to change the constitution, the reason being that only issues with genuine broad based support can be taken forwards and that damaging internal paralysis can be avoided. Political parties, including the Scottish National Party (SNP) require a two-thirds majority to change their constitutions. The European Union requires unanimity between members to achieve change. If a super majority is deemed necessary to maintain their own internal structure, then why should anything less be relevant in other situations? 

We need to be confident and positive about the rationale around this point. It is not a matter of changing the goalposts to make the result we don’t like less likely. It is an entirely logical change that forces politicians to seek consensus, and puts the onus on them to develop proposals that are more likely to be supported by the electorate. If they cannot do so, then that is a failure on their part, not ours.

As mentioned previously, there is currently a petition to the Scottish government which is starting to gain some traction on this issue. The petition can be found hereand is open until 30th September. This is our best means of putting this idea on the agenda at present.

3 – A Different Question. The EU Brexit referendum process established that a Yes/No answer gave a significant advantage to the side advocating Yes, and recent research in Scotland has suggested that in relationship to Scotland leaving or remaining in the UK, the difference between Yes/No and Leave/Remain was as much as 5-10 per cent, more than enough to change the result of any vote. If Leave/ Remain was a fairer alternative for the EU Brexit referendum, then it should be fairer in Scotland as well.

It is hugely important for everyone in Scotland that we change the narrative around these issues and that we do not simply repeat the same processes with the same result and same uncertainty as before. If Scotland was to ever become an independent country, then it would stand a much better chance of succeeding if that was the genuine popular choice of an undisputed majority of the population, and not brought about by a slick campaign that managed to achieve 50 per cent + 1 support on an ill-defined vision of the future that even many of their supporters would then ultimately be disappointed by.

Achieving a decisive outcome to any future referendum matters to all of us, and we need to create an expectation that this is indeed necessary.

But there is a message here for so-called pro-UK politicians as well. To date, they seem to be totally incapable of making these kind of arguments. We know that Brexit is dominating everything at the moment, and occupying the full bandwidth available to them, but some-one has got to be prepared to step back from the front-line of the current arguments and evaluate properly where it is that we might be going. Pro-UK politicians will say that making these sort of arguments will acknowledge that another referendum might happen, and that this somehow implies their lack of confidence of winning one. At the same time, they will happily say they are against another such vote, some more convincingly than others. Saying you are against something will only work as long as it does not materialize. Pro-UK politicians are not on top of this, and are not offering the necessary leadership required, despite the evidence available to us that anyone who is able to think can see.

We need to change the narrative around these issues, and have the courage of our convictions to do so. Our politicians may not be capable or willing to do this, but when the narrative of the day is stuck in a rut and the public are switching off to it, then their attention can be captured by a fresh approach which dares to take a different view.

For those of us who believe in the United Kingdom, it is not enough just to be involved in this debate. We have to focus on how to win it. If independence is ever to happen, then it should be the undisputed will of the Scottish people, with a clear majority voting for a clear proposition based on a question that is fair to everyone. If we have a process that can deliver this, then we can all participate in the debate again with greater confidence. If we can do this, then we are all more likely to accept the result.

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