Tuesday, 6 August 2019

More than a simple majority

The results of the polling by Lord Ashcroft this week will obviously be encouraging to Scottish independentistas.  The poll shows that opinion in Scotland is moving, and that there is probably a majority for independence if a vote were to be taken today.  At the same time, the question of independence for Wales is being debated more widely and openly than ever before, with even Welsh Labour Ministers making vaguely threatening noises about ‘needing to consider our place in the union’ if Scotland and/or Northern Ireland decide to leave.  ‘Vaguely threatening’ isn’t going to send a shiver down many spines, but it’s a step forward of sorts for a party as staunchly unionist as Welsh Labour.  It’s a mistake to over-simplify the reasons for the apparent current shift in opinion (there are always going to be multiple underlying movements in both directions), but it does seem clear that the appointment of a neo-colonial PM coupled with the looming possibility of a no deal Brexit are important factors.
And that causes me more than a little concern, because both of those are essentially negative rather than positive drivers, and the former at least is potentially very short term.  I don’t have a better alternative for deciding on whether Wales should be independent or not than a referendum in which a majority express their support, but if the whole Brexit process teaches us anything it is that reducing a complex and long-term issue to a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by a majority of 1 at a specific point in time is likely to cause as many problems as it resolves.  No doubt some would argue that that’s a reason for not holding a referendum at all, or for holding a referendum with some sort of a ‘threshold’ (over and above a simple majority) which supporters of change must reach before they can be considered to have ‘won’, but I find such approaches deeply unsatisfactory.  If there were to be a majority favouring change, not holding a vote to allow that to be expressed or holding a vote in which a minority for the status quo could over-rule a majority for change are hardly democratic approaches.  And whilst it’s true that a narrow vote one way for change leaves a substantial minority unhappy (as we’ve seen with Brexit), it’s a mistake to assume that a narrow vote against change doesn’t have exactly the same effect on a different group of people.
In that context, the most encouraging part of the Ashcroft poll, for me, wasn’t the 52-48 split in favour of independence but the 52-30 split in anticipation of the likely result of such a vote.  A narrow majority for independence may be enough, in constitutional and democratic terms – but having a much wider majority who anticipate and expect the result is a better basis for building consensus around acceptance of the result (the need for which seems to have been completely lost on the Brexiteer ultras).  That acceptance in Scotland seems to be there and growing, but we’re a long way from that in Wales.  It’s probably the difference between having been debating independence for decades and having brushed the matter under the carpet – the new willingness to discuss the issue in Wales is at least a starting point.

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