Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Pre-conditions for referendums

There has been some confusion about UKIP's policy in relation to the National Assembly.  Actually, I could have written that sentence without the words "in relation to the National Assembly", and on everything except their core policy of Brexit, it would still have made sense.  Yesterday, the party's UK leader half backed the suggestion from the Welsh leader that the Assembly should be abolished, by calling for a referendum.  This is hardly a surprise; it's not so very long since UKIP were claiming that the very existence of the Assembly was all part of a vile plot by those dastardly Europeans to regionalise the UK, completely ignoring decades of agitation for a national legislature for Wales.

There is nothing at all wrong with making such a call - they have as much democratic right to call for such a referendum as I do to call for a referendum on abolishing Westminster's control over Wales (which is the effect of a referendum on independence).  The fact that we have had referendums in the past is not - and should not be - any bar to having another one if it appears that opinions have changed.  It would be nice, though, if they'd recognise that a similar rule should apply to Brexit - if one decision brought about  by referendum can be changed by a further referendum, there is no logical justification for saying that the same isn't true for another decision taken by referendum.  I don't really expect them to understand that, mind: logic and UKIP are not words generally used in the same sentence.

There is, though, a condition which they need to meet first, and it's the same condition which we independentistas also need to meet.  To hold a referendum on either proposition requires there to be a majority of AMs in the Assembly committed to that proposition by manifesto commitment.  It's a wholly reasonable bar to set as a means of determining whether opinion is moving in a particular direction.  It's not one that I see much hope of them crossing though.


Anonymous said...

I think you might be forgetting something.

A referendum to 'get rid of' the Welsh Assembly could indeed end up doing just that. And then a few years later another referendum might see it re-established. Easy peasy, and so on ad nauseam.

But this doesn't apply to BREXIT or 'abolishing Westminster's control over Wales'. These are one-time referendum's, there is no way back unless others agree to accept us back, irrespective of however many referendums we chose to hold.

Imagine Scotland voting for independence and then for various reasons not being eligible for immediate EU membership. Surely the worst of all worlds including the BREXIT world.

John Dixon said...

I understand your point that holding a referendum on an issue entirely within the jurisdiction of the state makes the result easier to implement, but I'm not sure that it changes the democratic argument about when, under what conditions, or how frequently a referendum can or should be held. There is a responsibility on those calling for or organising a referendum on an issue to spell out clearly what is or is not available and whether the desired result depends on other people's willingness to agree (a responsibility which, sadly, those arguing that Brexit would be painless completely abrogated), but the possibility that something might not be within the ability of a government to deliver doesn't stop people desiring it. I tend to favour the idea of a two-stage referendum on big constitutional issues such as Brexit and independence - a vote on the principle, empowering those involved to undertake the detailed discussions to scope out the implications, and then a vote on the final proposal.

Rhys said...

I agree with the principle of a two-stage vote on big constitutional issues, but am not convinced that this needs to be a two-stage referendum. The value of a vote which empowers those who wish significant constitutional change to undertake the detailed work on specific proposals is obvious to me, and is illustrated clearly by recent history.
The SNP won such a vote in 2011 and went ahead to produce a clear, extensive and detailed prospectus for constitutional change. This enabled an informed debate in the run-up to 2014 - no-one could rightly argue that there was not a clear understanding of the options on the table during that referendum.
The contrast with 2016 could not be more stark. UKIP might claim to have won the 2014 EU parliament elections in the UK, with their 27% of the vote and 33% of seats, but they won no mandate to do anything but represent their constituents in Brussels. They had no mandate to call a referendum and made no effort to provide anything resembling a prospectus for Brexit. The farce of Brexit has been caused by a referendum being called by a Westminster government which supported the status quo, resulting in no clear prospectus for Brexit ever having been outlined.
If Plaid were to win in 2021, on a manifesto that gave it a mandate to devote significant resources to develop a prospectus for independence (an unlikely scenario), then a referendum fought on such a prospectus and against the status quo would, to my mind, be legitimate.
Two votes - yes. Two referenda - not necessarily.

Anonymous said...

If we're not careful we might end up with a referendum every day on some matter of national importance. In my opinion it would be better to leave matters in the hands of politicians. But I do so agree, our politicians desperately need to be more 'Trump-like', they need to set out with absolute clarity what they believe in, what they plan to do and how they plan to do it.

Otherwise we might just end up like those poor souls in Scotland, voting on an issue such as independence without any understanding of what might result and zero clarity on how others such as the EU might react.

John Dixon said...


I agree in principle with your "Two votes - yes. Two referenda - not necessarily." - that's a better formulation than my reference to two-stage referendums. I'm not sure, though, that I agree with "The SNP ... went ahead to produce a clear, extensive and detailed prospectus for constitutional change. This enabled an informed debate in the run-up to 2014 - no-one could rightly argue that there was not a clear understanding of the options on the table during that referendum.", because the Westminster government and Unionist parties were able to dispute (whether entirely legitimately or not is another question) much of what the SNP were saying. It might be logically legitimate to take a pro-independence majority in the Scottish (or Welsh) parliament as being enough in itself to start the initial process of pinning down the detail, but logic flies out of the window as soon as Westminster refuses to discuss or negotiate around that detail. It is, of course, in Westminster's interest to demand that the people vote in a referendum without the detail - that gives the upper hand to the status quo which will always look more 'certain' than the alternative. Essentially, it's what happened with Brexit as well; by not spelling out any real detail of the alternative and simply trying to scare people, the established order sought to give themselves an advantage, and believed that it would be enough to win. An approach which worked so well for them in 2014 went disastrously wrong in 2016.

There's a general point in there which means that I have a degree of sympathy with Anon's "If we're not careful we might end up with a referendum every day". A referendum as an instrument of direct democracy is generally hard for any democrat to oppose, but it's a very blunt weapon. Reducing a series of complex and interrelated issues to a simple 'yes' or 'no' makes it difficult - perhaps impossible - to distill exactly what the people have said, and leaves the politicians to try and interpret it, which they will do in various and mutually contradictory ways. A referendum as a means of 'confirmation or rejection' when the detail has been worked out might be more effective, but is open to the charge of 'you've already decided'. Not having a clear constitution - including a definition of the role of referendums - doesn't helk either.