22 April 2016

Warning: Referendums are addictive and may damage your sanity…


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It is hard to believe, with many weeks left until Britain votes in its In-Out EU referendum, but already there is worrying talk of a second plebiscite on the same question several years down the line.

This speculation is not restricted to those on the Leave side who talk of regrouping and trying for another go if they are defeated on June 23rd. I was sitting next to Sir Vince Cable, the former Lib Dem MP and cabinet minister, when we were both guests on Carolyn Quinn’s Westminster Hour (10pm, Sundays, BBC Radio 4, an hour of political analysis and insight) last weekend, and it was good to see him. Vince made the ostensibly understandable observation, in reasonable tones, that a narrow victory for Leave on a low turnout would not constitute a mandate for the UK leaving the EU. I know what he means and I have heard other Remainians say similar. But by the same logic if Remain just squeeze their way to victory on a tiny turnout that would not constitute a mandate for continued membership of the EU either. Meanwhile, hardline Leavers are more obsessive and seem to think a defeat is just the beginning of the journey. “It will dominate the rest of the parliament and there will be another referendum within five years,” a normally sensible Tory MP told me, and he is hardly alone in holding that view.

To which all one can say is: stop it, please. Indeed, it is important that the concept of a second referendum either way should be knocked on the head now, immediately, for the simple reason that a further vote would be mad. Not only would it mean yet more years of national navel-gazing, and be profoundly unsettling for business, there must also come a point (probably past) in which the British become, to our neighbours and friends, extremely boring. We already run the risk of being like the guests at a party loudly moaning about everything in a monomaniacal fashion. With that in mind, if the Brits vote and then announce that we want another go, one would not blame the French, the Spanish or the Italians from building a Trump-style wall, making us Brits pay for it, and banning us from holidaying in their countries.

Indeed, anyone on June 24th caught going on television or radio demanding a second referendum should only do so in the knowledge that they are likely to be pelted with rotten fruit by passing members of the voting public driven bananas by months of referendum coverage.

That this is even being discussed by Westminster types is proof that referendums are dangerously addictive for a certain kind of politician and activist. You try one referendum and you think you can handle it, but before you know it you need the buzz and get twitchy if you haven’t filed a complaint to the electoral commission and addressed a rally in Chester before breakfast.

The Scottish Nationalists suffer from this affliction. Although the party leadership is trying to wean the membership off the hard stuff (this week omitting a commitment to a second referendum in its manifesto for next month’s Scottish devolved elections) winning a vote on independence remains the main point of the SNP. That constitutional obsession in Scotland for the last forty years has had a deeply damaging impact, in that it has consumed energy that might have been better used elsewhere. It is much easier to focus on the constitution, getting a warm feeling from demands for a referendum, than it is to do the hard work of improving education, health or economic policy.

There must be a risk of something similar happening in the rest of the UK, if the result in June is not accepted and demands begin for a re-run. For the truth is that once the fun of the referendum is over, many of the UK’s difficulties are not going to be solved or challenges met by a Leave or Remain vote. The improvements in recent decades in the education system in England that need to be continued and built upon will not be materially effected by either outcome. Health and social care systems need reform in response to increased longevity and technological opportunity, as much they face pressure from migration. Again, whether we are are In or Out of the EU will not be decisive. No-one, other than the British, is blocking fresh-thinking on the NHS.

Meanwhile, the UK has made exciting progress in the growth of new companies. There has a been surge of interest and company formation. According to the ONS, in February 2011 there were 2,295, 876 companies on the register in England. By February 2016 that number had risen to 3,178,827. Now we Brits need to go further and rebalance the economy away from excessive reliance on credit, and the government subsidising the banking system in the hope that it will keep pumping out debt to maintain prosperity, towards a set-up in which equity, investment and innovation are cherished. Even more entrepreneurialism is required, not further property bubbles blown by a broken banking system operating in cahoots with desperate government. Again, leaving or staying in the EU will make little difference to any of this.

I say all this as someone who is for Leave – on the grounds of self-government, borders and despair at the state of the EU model – although I still have concerns about the transition and the geopolitical impact. On that note, the last week of the campaign has been pretty positive for the Remain campaign, even though the Chancellor’s warning on the cost of Brexit by 2030 was inherently ludicrous and about as much use as a Treasury projection in 1976 of how British, European and global politics and economics might look in 1990. But the imagery of the Obama visit to see the Queen – and some eccentric performances by a few leading Brexiteers – combined to make it the week in which it became clear how much Establishment clout Remain will have at its disposal.

As the campaign ebbs and flows, the talk of another vote will fluctuate, from Remain to Leave, depending on who has momentum at any given moment. Yet neither side should be entertained for one second on this question. The EU referendum is not best of three. This is it. It is leave or remain; make up your mind time; accept the result and get on with addressing the country’s problems whatever the verdict from the voters.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX