Referendums and the Will of the People (or Not)

CSPP contributor Miratus offers thoughts on the coverage of the EU referendum result, held on 23 June, and what the vote means about the divergence of opinion between Scotland and other parts of the UK.


So the people were duped ....

Instead of the ‘democratic will’ or the ‘wisdom of crowds’, commentators across the political spectrum agree that we saw a howl of rage unconnected to the subject on which a question was being asked. Lies and racism did the rest. We could try and have another referendum, find some other constitutional means for avoiding the decision made, or somehow live with the result. Whatever happens next however (and nobody quite knows at the moment) be very clear that this was not a celebration of democracy, but a brutal realisation that referendums result in disastrous decisions made by the people for the wrong reasons, against their own self interest, and based on the wrong information.

Except in Scotland...

In Scotland however the sovereign will was successfully exercised. The people spoke, and the Scottish Government, supported by ex-unionists like J. K. Rowling, Alex Massie and the Daily Record, will energetically pursue all options for ensuring that the sacred will of the people is upheld. There was nothing wrong with the information, the lies, the scaremongering, there was no possible confusion between the subject of the referendum and unrelated nefarious matters.  It was a clear choice, everyone made an evidence based decision, and the result has confirmed the glory of our democratic tradition, and the undoubted democratic wisdom of the Scots.


But how enthusiastic is Scotland really for the EU? What if in truth the EU referendum failed to stir up passions in Scotland?  What if it was not so much a difference of views, but an absence of views about the EU in Scotland that led to a different result from the rest of the UK?

Referendums are blunt instruments. They create overly simplistic binary choices. And they offer a politician’s arse to the public and invite a good kicking. In Scotland, we had already had the opportunity to deliver the ‘establishment’ a good kicking in 2014. Were we knackered from that still, and ambivalent about having a second go?

Or perhaps Scotland is not so different. If it is strange that 52% in the UK were prepared to ignore the warnings of economic disaster from a variety of experts and institutions, and treat it as a risk worth taking in the name of ‘taking back control’ and an enhanced sense of identity, it is perhaps comparable that 45% in Scotland were prepared to take the same risk less than 2 years earlier.  In that sense the supposed difference between the political cultures of Scotland and England are less marked – the margin between 52% and 45% is of course the margin between victory and defeat, but it is after all only 7%.

In Scotland we have our identity – and part of our identity is that apparently we are pro-EU. But not so strongly that a million Scots still voted leave, and the turnout in places like Glasgow only reached 56%. Indeed the turnout across Scotland at 67% was lower than everywhere else bar Northern Ireland. The truth is that the EU referendum failed to ignite in Scotland. It felt like an argument happening somewhere else.  We didn’t need a referendum to help us with our identity. We already knew who we were, in or out of Europe.

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