Five truths about referendums

13 June 2016 - by Quintin Oliver

With 10 days to go before the EU Referendum, Stratagem Director Quintin Oliver tells us what he has learnt about referendums and what characterises them.

My first referendum was the ill-fated ‘Border Poll’ in N. Ireland in March 1973, boycotted by all shades of nationalism, but since I was too young for my own ballot, my mum let me pop hers into the box; in July that year I observed, on Lesbos, the Greek Colonels try to force through constitutional changes to prolong their rule; by 1975’s EEC poll I was active in the ‘East Fife Get Britain Out’ Campaign, chaired by a certain G. Brown (I often wonder what happened to him?).

In 1979 I ran ‘Youth for Scotland YES’ effort in a successful vote, but snagged by the last-minute requirement for 40% of the electorate to vote yes, an almost impossible tripwire, imposed by opponents of Scottish devolution.

35 referendums around the world (and yes, my degree in Ancient Greek does lead me to prefer that version of the plural!) later, as campaigner, pundit, observer or protagonist, here we are on the brink of another.

Let me outline my five top truths of referendums:

  1. Voters answer the wrong question - in this case as much a verdict on the splits and future direction of the governing party and its leadership contenders;
  1. Referendums are not elections  - but parties campaign as if they were, elevating personalities and emphasising differences (what is the Labour for Remain campaign for, when StrongerIN has official recognition and public money?);
  1. Voters like to see parties and experts (from credible civil society organisations) working together, offering insights and sharing analysis, rather than bickering or one-upping each other;
  1. They who frame the discourse often lead the debate and win the prize; if immigration and sovereignty trump peace, security and trade, you can see where this is heading...
  1. 'Change campaigns' are always easier to run, throwing around flak, rumour and idealistic promises (remember Scotland 2014), so long as the debate is framed on the 'change' side having to justify its assertions; if not, the status quo can appear stale and historic (e.g. Scotland again and Remain in this outing).

Nevertheless most pre-negotiation referendums are lost (the notable exception being de Klerk's last all-white poll of 1992 seeking approval to enter negotiations with Mandela's ANC) and most post-negotiation ones are won - remember ours on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, when voters knew the deal, warts and all, and heard a united cross-party and non-party proposition!

The question for 23rd June is whether Cameron's piece of paper from the turn of the year represents a full-throated negotiation or just the precursor to a second round?