17 October 2016

Referendums settle one question – but raise a dozen others


As even the dimmest bear may now understand, referendums do not settle debates. They simply move them on. They differ significantly from ordinary elections, in which the game is refereed according to long-understood rules and regulations. Even if, as in 2010, the result initially appears inconclusive, precedent offers a path through the electoral thicket. And, besides, the losing side knows defeat is not permanent; there will be another opportunity in four, or five, years time. Win some, lose some, the game goes on.

A referendum is a different kind of game. Even apparently simple, binary, questions produce results that are inconclusive. So, yes, Scotland votes to remain a part of the United Kingdom and, yes, the United Kingdom votes to leave the European Union but in neither instance is the meaning of those votes immediately clear. What kind of United Kingdom? What kind of Brexit? A binary question struggles to answer questions that, in reality, have multiple answers.

Which leads us to this paradox: a referendum, notionally the purest expression of the people’s will, can produce results which are, in the end and at bottom, curiously undemocratic. “Brexit means Brexit” Leavers say, and sometimes they even manage to suppress a wolfish grin as they say it. But “Brexit means Brexit” is just a slogan. It doesn’t map the reality of our present situation. Not when there are many kinds of Brexit and many paths that could be taken.

What did Britain actually vote for? To leave the European Union. Well, yes, but on what terms? Because the terms matter. Is it hard or soft, open or closed? We don’t know. It’s Schrödinger’s Brexit!

This wouldn’t matter so much if the question weren’t so important; a question made more important by the fact it was subject to a referendum. The act of holding such a vote changes the nature of the issue being debated. It becomes something greater than a mere  policy decision. When the contest is close, it becomes deeply personal and often in ways that surprise voters who find themselves moved – to joy, relief, anger or sadness – to a degree they scarcely thought probable or even possible.

That helps explain why so many people – Yes and No, Leave and Remain – react so much more strongly to a referendum than they do to an ordinary general election. They find themselves caring far more than they thought they would. A government, you see, is a necessary inconvenience – but a referendum opens a door to transformational change.

The trouble is, my change is not necessarily the same as your change – even though, on the narrow matter of the question on the ballot, we happened to vote the same way. Thus, when it came to considering the merits of Brexit, far-Left critics of globalisation could find themselves on the same side as neoliberal champions of globalisation. They might agree to vote for Leave, but for very different reasons. And, once the votes had been counted, they would agree on little else. A temporary alliance of convenience gives way to a hard reality in which some of the referendum’s “winners” must become “losers”. Because they can’t all get what they want.

Which in turn leads to further division and disgruntlement. If Scotland had voted for independence in 2014, I fancy there’d have been some measure of “buyer’s remorse” just as there are some Leave voters who, despite being happy to remove the UK from the EU, are dismayed by the manner in which that leaving is going to take place. There are many different kinds of Leave, after all, and it’s not absurd for at least some voters to now think “I voted for Leave but not your brand of Leave”.

All of which leaves politicians, especially those on the winning side, in an unenviable position. They must talk about “unity” and “healing divisions” even though they were in large part responsible for creating those divisions and that disunity in the first place. The losers, for their part, must knuckle down and accept a result they have been led to believe portends disaster.

But if voters truly believe a referendum has catapulted the country towards a disaster of historic proportions, why should they accept its result? Some things may be thought too important to be subject to the usual rules of politics. And, again, we know this subject must be of historic significance because if it were not it would not have been put to a referendum. So the stakes are raised again.

Hence, in Scotland, Yes voters ignored the pre-referendum suggestion an independence plebiscite was a “once in a generation” opportunity. Why should it be? Why can’t the question be asked again and again until such time as the people deliver the “correct” result? No wonder Scottish politics can’t “move on” from the 2014 referendum. The question has not been settled.

The aftermath of the Brexit referendum is different in the sense that it has settled one question (Britain will leave the EU) but it does so by raising a dozen other questions. At present, the Government appears to think it doesn’t need to answer them. “Trust us,” they say. “We know what we’re doing,” they insist.  The trouble is, they’re giving every indication to the contrary.

The country’s lack of faith in the Government is trumped only by its conviction that there is no functioning alternative to this government. But there is something Theresa May could usefully do to clarify where she, her government, and the country, stands: call an election and put her Brexit proposals to the people. She may not realise this yet but the absence of a mandate risks the legitimacy of her programme for government, not least since she has made a clean, even brutal, break with the administration led by her predecessor. A general election would at least clarify matters, answer those questions a referendum simply cannot, and settle the debate – for now.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.