The concept of a referendum

The significance of any specific event, action or concept, is informed by a range of meanings. Becoming more aware of the web of meanings associated with an event makes it possible to understand how and why people respond to it in different ways. It seems to me that many of the apparently straightforward and taken for granted aspects of the independence debate embody assumptions and ideas that carry a great deal of meaning and significance, and have massive implications.

Let’s start with the idea of a “referendum”.

The future political status of Scotland hinges on a yes/no vote that will take place on 18th September 2014. We live in a parliamentary democracy that is primarily organised around the election of representatives (such as MPs) who form governments and oppositions, and who take decisions on behalf of the electorate as a whole. Referendums are rare within the UK political system, and are only used to make decisions around fundamental constitutional issues. Within routine parliamentary business, there is scope for modifying a proposed act of parliament through amendments, redrafting, and so on. This makes it possible, in principle, to take account of the views of a range of opinion. A referendum is different. All of the shades of opinion that exist become reduced to a yes or no response to a single statement. The “no” vote of someone who is vehemently opposed to just the same as the “no” vote of someone who is generally favourable to independence but on balance perhaps believes that the time is not right.    

All this may seem obvious, but it has important implications. We are all in this together. However the vote turns out, we all still need to rub along together. The day after the referendum, there will be a sizable minority of people who passionately believe in the validity of their position, who get nothing.

This is quite different from the situation on other cultures and situations, where decisions are made by means of discussion in a group, which continues until an agreement is reached that is acceptable to all.

It is different from the independence referendum in Norway a century ago, where the vast majority of people agreed on what needed to be done, and the vote itself only served to ratify that consensus.

One important implication of a yes/no referendum is that it focuses energy and attention on the undecided people in the middle. They are the ones who might be persuaded to move in one direction or the other, and thus swing the overall vote. The effect of this is to silence the voices of those members of society who actually feel strongest about the issue. This is evident in an absence of passion in public discourse. There is a paradox here. Our most important decisions in life are largely guided by emotion – how we feel about a person, a career choice, a place to live.

Another important implication is that it over-simplifies the issues. There are probably three or four identifiable “yes” positions, and a similar number of “no” positions. For example, there is an “SNP-yes” stance that reflects a pragmatic centrist view, and a more radical “Commonweal-yes” stance that reflects a radical socialist view. On the other side, the differences between “Tory-no” and “Labour-no” positions make it almost impossible for the Better Together campaign to say anything sensible about what a future UK-together might look like. The point here is that a simple ‘yes-no’ choice has the effect of suppressing shades of opinion.

Another significant feature of a referendum of this type is that it consists of a decision that has long-term consequences. In the USA, individual States have held referendums around decisions that could fairly readily be reversed, such as legalizing cannabis. By contrast, a decision such as being an independent country, or leaving the EU, is not easily reversed. Voters are therefore being asked to make a prediction around which option will provide best 5 years or 10 years (or longer) into the future. It is not possible to make such a prediction on the basis of factual evidence, because human society is highly complex and the relevant social science disciplines, such as economics, are not sufficiently powerful. If anyone doubts this, they just need to reflect on how few economists or politicians were able to anticipate he financial crash of 2008. The implication of this dimension of the referendum process is that lines of arguments that are based on factual evidence are bound to be inconclusive. This is what has happened. Any arguments that have been put forward around the economic future of an independent Scotland (or a continuing intact UK) are always open to rebuttal, by envisaging alternative pathways and scenarios. What this means is that those individuals who want to be able to base their referendum decision on the ‘facts’ are never going to get what the reassurance they want. Long-term decisions, in any area of life, are based on values, principles, faith and vision. This has been a problem in the referendum, because for many decades the UK has been losing its capacity to talk about these things.

These are just some of the ways in which the meaning of the idea of “referendum” influences what is happening. Maybe it is necessary, for us as a society, to agree to make a decision by a particular date. It is possibly the only way to ensure that everyone gives serious consideration to what is at stake. But a referendum, by its very nature, polarizes the conversation. A different kind of national conversation can be imagined, that organized around dialogue rather than debate, and that allowed areas of consensus and agreement to emerge, and resulted in action being taken only when there was sufficient general agreement on the best way forward.


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