Tag Archives: referendum schmeferendum

Celebrate the referendum, and celebrate politics, even if it looks crap


It’s hard to find anyone to say a good word about the UK’s referendum on EU membership. Yet, we should take a minute to celebrate, at the very least, the principle of a referendum. In principle, we’ll have most of the voting public coming together to make a decision on a matter of major importance to British politics. Leaders make their pitch, and we make an important choice. It’s as close as we’ll get to direct democracy in action.

Instead, it’s tempting to blame the referendum for such a bad-looking outcome: manipulative campaigners are stirring up division and fear, and lying about the likely outcomes; people with limited knowledge are basing their decisions on their values and emotions in the relative absence of ‘facts’; and, some people are exploiting the opportunity to be abusive or violent in the name of politics. Or, to put it in a far vaguer way, there is a bad ‘climate’ associated with the referendum, and it just doesn’t feel right.

However, if this is what we think of political elite behaviour, and of the limits to the knowledge and deliberative capacity of the public, I can’t think of any political mechanism that would help. For example:

  1. With representative democracy, we’d have 5-year elections in which people make uninformed choices about parties doing anything to get elected.
  2. With pluralist democracy, we’d have governments selling favours to vested interests.
  3. When developing new forms of accountability, we’d have fat cat quango chief executives lining their own pockets at the public’s expense, local community councils and partnerships manipulating processes to make sure that nothing bad happens in their own back yard, and service users cheating the system to get better public services than other people – and all of this would be overseen by parliamentarians and other politicians who don’t give a shit.

Consider the consequences of rejecting referendums

I think we often think the worst of people, and despair of certain political mechanisms, when they don’t deliver what we want. We fear the consequences of political outcomes that don’t reflect our values or interests and – particularly during a heated referendum in which so many people are involved – get a bit of a shock when we see how many people hold opposing views so passionately. For the people most engaged in debate, this can be a visceral experience that reduces our ability to take a step back and give us more time to consider events and their meaning.

Perhaps a small part of us thinks that our opponents are idiots, or at least that they would change their minds if they were more informed, less stupid, less emotional, and less vulnerable to manipulation by political leaders (and that the people who share our views are heroic deliberators basing their decisions on evidence).

If so, it might be safer and less worrying to hold on to political mechanisms which limit such debates, but only when the status quo suits us. When it reinforces a position to which we oppose, we are more likely to be up in arms, decrying the ability of a political class to close off debate, for their own interests, using institutions, biased arguments, and other resources to boost their power.

Instead, I recommend two things:

  1. Blame the worst offenders by name, rather than the mechanisms they use to get what they want.
  2. Consider how to make decisions by combining emotions and evidence.


Of course, this has been a big set-up for further reading:

There are some good concepts which help us think through these issues:

On the links between power and policymaking

On ‘framing’ to manipulate political debate and policy choices

On the role of institutions and ‘standard operating procedures’ to (for example) help close off debate

On the networks of influence in which only some people are members (in any political system)

On multi-level governance, complexity, and complex government (to show us that, while the EU looks distant and hard to understand, the UK suffers many of the same problems)

On the role of emotion and ‘irrationality’ versus evidence in politics and policymaking

(If you just want a source for the picture see here)


Filed under agenda setting, UK politics and policy

The SNP won’t hold #indyref2 until it knows it can win

The SNP won’t hold a second independence referendum until it knows it can win. That is an obvious statement, but it seems to have been missed by the SNP’s opponents. They should be pushing Sturgeon to admit that, for the first time in its history, it could go into two successive elections without prioritising independence or pushing for a referendum. Instead, they are looking for a way to say that the SNP will jump at the first opportunity. What nonsense.

Sturgeon’s line is that it would take a material change for the SNP to push for a referendum in the near future. One change is obvious: if there is a referendum on the EU, and the UK votes to leave but Scotland votes to stay, it will prompt a constitutional crisis and a likely second Scottish vote.

The other is not obvious: if there is a surge in support for the SNP or for a Yes vote in the opinion polls. The surge in SNP membership, to over 100000, is significant for them but not the vote: it was likely caused by disaffected Yes voters able to join easily (online, for a small fee) and does not signal a shift in public mood. A rise in opinion poll support will be viewed by the SNP as positive but not a clincher, since the ultimate opinion poll took place 6 months ago, producing a decisive ‘No’. One or two post-indy polls are not enough to suggest that the result would change next time.

Instead, the SNP has to continue to do what it is remarkably good at: biding its time and remaining popular until a longer term opportunity arises. For me, the magic figure is at least 10 years between referendums, for several reasons: to ward off the idea of a ‘neverendum’; to give people time to become enthused again about a lengthy debate; to find out what people think of the final Scottish devolution ‘settlement’, which won’t bed in for a few years; and, to put it rather euphemistically, to produce a new cohort of voters (to address the fact that older people were far more likely to vote No).

In the meantime, the SNP will try to do two things. First, it needs to demonstrate its relevance on the UK stage, to show for example that it can influence UK decisions regularly, and that only a vote for the SNP will ensure UK Government concessions on further devolution in key areas such as social security (although ‘fiscal autonomy’ and ‘devo max’ is a non-starter). Second, it needs to keep winning Scottish Parliament elections on the back of its strong image of governing competence. Don’t forget that its image, rather than a surge of support for independence, explains its landslide victory in 2011.

The same goes for 2015 and beyond. The SNP won’t win enough votes if it looks like the independence party and nothing more, and it has dealt with that problem well. Its long term referendum chances hinge on it remaining a credible party of government in Scotland and, for now, a positive force in the UK.

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Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy