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When Can I Vote 'No' To More Referendums?

31/08/2017 17:38 | Updated 01 September 2017
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The year 2013-14 came with a reputation building licence for many who were trying to break into Scottish politics. Amidst the febrile atmosphere of the referendum, individuals from both sides, who were previously only known to political anoraks, became household names. Since then, Scottish politics has been infused with new talent, of varying degrees of quality, by incorporating those who stood up, spoke out, and helped make their case during those dramatic days. There are candidates, MPs, MSPs, and many others who, to use a mafia expression, "made their bones" during the independence referendum of 2014. I am happy to include myself in the diverse graduating class of the 2014 referendum. Had it not been for a series of invitations from the Better Together campaign to take part in debates - a particular aptitude of mine - across the country, it is difficult to imagine that I would have had the career I have today. Essentially, I had a very good referendum and not just because of the resounding victory for the union for which I was, and remain, an advocate.

Why this navel-gazing opening? Well, it's only fair that the reader knows a little about my background (which also includes working with the Remain campaign in the EU referendum before I returned to "undecided" - a state I remain in to this day) before I make the argument that follows; because despite referendum(s) having been very good business for me personally, I would rather we didn't have any more and especially not on the questions we've already answered.

Firstly, referendums are often built on an unkeepable promise - that of finality. During the Scottish independence referendum, for example, the Scottish people were told repeatedly that the September 18 vote was a "once in a lifetime" event and would settle the matter for "a generation". The vote was held, the "No" side won, and, predictably, the rumblings of a second referendum on the same question began almost immediately.

I do not, as some more cynical unionists might, blame the SNP or the Scottish Government for failing to stand by the referendum commitment of "once in a generation". Their fault was in making the promise in the first place because it is not in the nature of any electorate, especially one as bloody-minded as my follow Scots, to simply "like it or lump it". The demands for a second referendum, whatever the outcome, were inevitable well before the first sleepy polling station employee got out of bed on voting day. The losing side were never going to accept that the matter was over - people just aren't wired that way. For further evidence, tune into the white noise currently being made about second votes on this-or-that following the Brexit plebiscite.

My second objection to referendums, in general, is that they do to complex political questions what modern artists do to paintings - simplify them to the point of meaninglessness. By presenting either Scotland's place within the UK or Britain's relationship with the EU as a binary, yin or yang , yes or no, remain or leave choice, all the other possibilities are excluded from the narrative. Scotland couldn't just be within the United Kingdom or fully independent, there are a number of other possibilities like federalism, increased devolution, or home rule. Likewise, there was room for a more nuanced consideration of the UK's relationship with the EU which was constrained by a leave or remain narrative. The lesson being; if you ask a simple question, don't be surprised if you receive that most overrated of political virtues, a simple answer.

Thirdly, holding referendums to answer difficult questions lets our elected politicians off the hook. How many times, when pressed for answers, did we hear a politician of whatever stripe tell us something like "well, it's up to the people to decide". Whenever I heard this I would mentally ask, "Oh gee... that's right. If only we had some kind of system where we voted for people who made decisions for us. What might a system like that be called?" Possibly, it might be called representative democracy, or something, but it would certainly be in direct conflict with referendums.

The reader might well detect an element of hypocrisy in this article coming from a guy who built his career to date on a referendum and who is now speaking out against them and hoping that no more will follow. However, given the experience that I have I can tell you that referendums are, by nature, divisive, as they usually address questions of identity, and I would want to make sure that they were permanent, gave satisfactory answers, and didn't clash with the political context they were being held in before having any more. From where I sit, this is not the case.

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