The frustration of referendums

Full version of article for Stratagem NI written pre-referendum:

One of the fascinating aspects of the Scottish referendum, for me, was that it demonstrated the clash of cultures between politics and economics. The fundamental debate seems to have settled on matters economic – yet these are being debated primarily by politicians. The result is that people seemed to sense they are ill-informed and are thus growing increasingly irritated, rather than filled with passion and vigour.

Why is the focus on the currency? Throughout the campaign, polls showed around 45-50% of people certain to vote “no”, and 35-40% certain to vote “yes”. The “undecideds” were therefore crucial to the outcome.

It was expected, early on, that this would mean the focus would fall on oil revenues. However, it became rapidly apparent that oil can be argued either way – “yes” supporters argued it would make Scotland one of the wealthiest nations in the world; “no” supporters argued the oil will run out within a generation (implicitly leaving Scotland worse off than its neighbours). So the economic issue turned to currency.

It turned to currency mainly because the “no” campaign realised it could attack on the subject. Rightly or wrongly, it had long ago decided to “play for a draw” and go for an essentially cautious (perhaps negative) campaign, not least because its job has been to defend a fairly firm opinion poll lead since the outset. On currency, the main pro-“yes” party, the SNP, was clearly divided – in 2004 current SNP Education Minister Michael Russell drafted a book outlining that the first requirement of Scottish independence would be its own currency; as recently as 2009 SNP advisers briefed that they may move to a pro-euro stance; First Minister Alex Salmond settled in the end on a “Sterling Union” with the Continuing UK similar to the Eurozone, but found all three main UK parties and the UK Treasury publicly opposed. The “no” campaign wished to promote the risk and uncertainty inherent in independence, and nowhere is this more obvious than on the currency it would use (and it is possible that Mr Salmond’s “three Plan ‘B’s” may, in the cold light of day, inadvertently have served to highlight that risk and uncertainty further in voters’ minds).

All of this serves two linked warnings about referendums which may soon apply across the UK. The first is that politicians are most comfortable when they are banding figures around and making grand economic warnings; the second is that, when they do so, there is no referee to determine the veracity or legitimacy of these figures or claims. This can turn referendums, supposedly the ultimate exercise in representative democracy, into events of great frustration and disenchantment.

As we look forward, the same warning applies to a potential ‘in/out’ referendum on the European Union. Already, we hear dire warnings from “in” campaigners about the millions of UK jobs which “depend” on EU membership; and equally dire claims from “out” campaigners about the “£17 billion” that constitutes the alleged “cost” of that membership. Most alarming of all, perhaps, is the way that each side will show absolute faith in their own side’s case, and give no credence at all to any of the other side’s. The people who determine the outcome, therefore, are people in the middle who merely become increasingly confused and disenchanted by the claim and counter-claim being thrown about by either side – that would apply to any EU referendum across the UK just as it does in Scotland currently.

We in Northern Ireland are familiar with the notion, currently being experienced in Scotland, that our side is completely right and the other side is completely wrong! It is small wonder that many people of more moderate view in Scotland came to regard themselves as insufficiently “informed”. They are! Unfortunately, we needn’t expect anything different in a prospective EU referendum across the UK later in the decade.


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