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Lessons From Scotland - The Long and the Short of the EU Referendum

31/01/2016 20:53 GMT | Updated 31/01/2017 10:12 GMT

The received wisdom du jour in Scotland is that, regardless of the position one may have taken, our 2014 referendum on independence was a "good thing". As someone who participated on panels and in debates across Scotland during that interesting time I was always sceptical of this view. I do agree with the points concerning a rejuvenation of our democracy, a revitalised electorate and the impact it had on young people; all the engagement-centric arguments are fine by me.

However, there were significant downsides to the entire grand stooshie. Scotland was politically fractured, along new or pre-existing fault lines - it's unclear which, and remains so now. Furthermore, our referendum stretched over a two-year period, the Yes and No campaigns were founded in May and June of 2012 respectively, and so by virtue of a finite amount of space being available in any public sphere a lot of our pertinent issues, like health and education, were neglected. As the former leader of the Scottish Labour Party Johann Lamont accurately observed, Scotland was "on pause".

My point is that the referendum on Scottish independence was very much a mixed bag in terms of positives and negatives for our political health. Complex political events tend to be that way. Given the way the upcoming referendum on the European Union is shaping up i.e. remarkably similar to the independence referendum in terms of tone, argument and even some of the exact phrasing used, I suspect it will follow a very similar pattern.

However, all the early indicators allude to at least one crucial difference between the Scottish and European Union referendums and it comes down to the length of the campaign. While the independence referendum lasted two gruelling and torturous years it seems that the EU referendum campaign will be on the shorter side; influential Scottish Secretary David Mundell has even hinted that the referendum could be held as early as June of this year.

At first, I thought that the call for an early referendum was a mistake. I was convinced that the lack of time would play into the hands of a perpetually underestimated Eurosceptic silent-but-determined voting bloc and would not allow the pro-EU side to lay out its, far more complex and nuanced, ideas. Essentially, I believed that the pro-EU side required more time to put forward its case and a short referendum period would sweep the legs of the campaign away before it could even stand up - giving the Eurosceptic side the advantage, given that they, like the nationalists before them, have been spoiling for a fight for years.

However, I now realise this was a mistake.

I think that a short referendum period is the correct way to approach the EU referendum and this is based on the experiences we have had in Scotland. In terms of the impact of holding the vote I suspect that the upsides and downsides will closely mirror the Indyref in terms of divisiveness; this vote will split people down a remain/leave line rather than a yes/no line and it will be more impactful and longer-lasting than many people will expect it to be. These divisions are an inevitable part of holding a binary choice referendum and are just part of the trade-off for such democratic exercises.

The fact of the societal divisions that are caused by this kind of mass question may be inevitable but the depth and severity of the scarring is not and can, I suspect, be controlled and limited... by holding the referendum sooner rather than later.

It is simply too coincidental to note the length of the Scottish referendum and its divisive impact. I have heard people from various quarters argue that argumentativeness and being obstreperous is just what Scots are like as a people - I find this persistent romanticisation of my fellow Scots to be infantilising, demeaning and really, really annoying. The two year long independence referendum gave the societal divisions caused by the split in public opinion time to bed in and become almost normative. The divisions caused by the referendum have restructured Scottish politics to the point where one is no longer asked if one is right wing or left wing, authoritarian or libertarian or even socialist or conservative; the question one is asked is if one voted yes or no and therefore if one is a nationalist or a unionist. That is the state of Scottish politics in the aftermath of the referendum; it's just where we are right now.

So, while there may be some disadvantages of a short referendum period in terms of depth of argument, balance between the two sides (I've already demonstrated why I think it benefits the "leave" side) and it will certainly make the next jobs of certain members of the political elite slightly shorter (the heart bleeds, does it not?) I still think it's worth it to avoid Britain being left in the same condition as Scotland has been left in after the referendum on independence. A shorter referendum will entrench the issues of leaving and remaining in the European Union into the popular discourse less and will hopefully ensure that the decisions made after it are not constantly taineted by where one stood when the European question was asked. We've seen the damage that such politics has caused in Scotland and the escalation of these effects to a UK level is too horrific to contemplate.

I am, of course, still in favour of having the vote but let's learn from experience and not let its legacy toxify everything that happens afterwards, as we know how dangerous that can be. Let's have the vote soon, make the decision and get on with the rest of public life as quickly as possible.

Britain needs to be "on pause" for as little time as possible.