Prepare for intensified debate rather than settled argument

21 June 2016 - by Quintin Oliver

Most referendums are lost. Turnout rarely reaches the amazing 85% of the Scottish independence poll of 2014; usually it hovers below half. It often intensifies a debate or conflict, rather than settles it for a lifetime. Referendums are often accompanied by political violence. Only sometimes does more light than heat be generated.

These counter-intuitive assertions will all come into play when we return to the polls on Thursday for the EU vote.

Since the question in most referendums promotes change or a new dynamic, it is often difficult to persuade reluctant and cautious citizens to take that risk; that is why ‘Project Fear’ was coined to represent the antidote to naive and unsustainable claims by proponents of idealism; therein lies the challenge of those promoting Brexit. Will the works suddenly be better?

Charles de Gaulle, the generally successful French President finally concluded that the ‘trouble with referendums is that the voter answers the wrong question!’ What question will we be answering this week? That's the problem for Remain. 

In the first European Nice poll in the South, fewer than one in three were attracted to the polls, the same as decided to create the post of London Mayor in 1998; the first Scottish devolution referendum in 1979 was invalidated, despite 52% opting FOR, by a turnout threshold of 40% of the whole electorate, being imposed by Westminster opponents. Democratic? You decide. 

This week, with the Assembly elections of May fresh in our memories, will we trek again to our local schools and halls to decide on Europe, or have we been distracted by Cabinet formation, Justice, Opposition and Programme for Government consultation?

Will this vote settle the debate? I doubt it. It didn’t in Scotland, clearly; nor did it settle the Nice or Lisbon questions for Ireland - they were just re-run, so that Europe could trundle on.

Violence accompanies fierce conflicts, often intensified at elections and referendums. 400 voters are thought to have been murdered before the 99% South Sudan independence poll, and many in Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal. I recall several politically motivated assassinations in the run-up to our 1998 Good Friday Agreement poll, including that of the lively and respected Terry Enright.

Last week we saw the obviously horrific murder of Jo Cox MP, the fifth MP in recent memory to lose their lives from conflict-related violence, the other four linked to our own conflict.

Heat or light? In retrospect our 1998 debate was pretty persuasive and profound, largely because it was post-negotiation, so we knew the deals on policing, prisoner release, power-sharing and identity. Compare that to Scotland in 2014, when neither side could answer the key questions about currency, border controls, passports or pensions. Or Wales in 2011, when the tax-raising and primary legislative powers had already been enacted into law.

Now, do we regard PM Cameron’s piece of paper in January, as a negotiation, or merely a prelude to the serious discussions to come? Boris Johnson hinted at a second go, early in the campaign. Is that what the Brexiteers are secretly hoping for?

For that could determine if voters are prepared to give it a go, take the risk or take the plunge into the unknown; because while voters, particularly the ‘don’t knows’ often plump for the status quo, in this case, they may feel less affinity with the EU status quo than with their ‘Englishness’ (since Scotland and Northern Ireland seem set to confirm their comfort with the sovereignty and solidarity propositions implied by EU membership.

This article featured in the Irish News on 21 June 2016.