Policy Referendums and Buses Come in Twos

By Jim Gallagher

Jim Gallagher is a guest contributor for Policy Scotland, the views expressed in this post do not reflect the opinions of Policy Scotland or the University of Glasgow. 

Referendums and buses come in twos, and the second one is surprisingly like the first. The Euro referendum resembles the Scottish in disconcerting ways. The Leave camp have borrowed the Yes campaign’s playbook, despite the SNP’s pro-European stance, though it’s the deep rather than the superficial resemblances that matter most.


Sovereignty and Patriotism


One the very first day of the European debate Chris Grayling used the S-word. The EU referendum was all about wresting back British sovereignty from Brussels. For Scottish Nationalists too, it was all about sovereignty, this time Scottish. There’s paradox at the heart of both positions: making this choice is an exercise of sovereignty. If Britain can choose whether to leave or remain, it must be sovereign. If the Scottish people can choose whether to be independent of not, they must be sovereign too. In both cases the fact that you can ask the question answers it.


Sovereignty is a slippery concept anyway. For some in the Leave camp, the sovereignty to be recovered is the Westminster Parliament’s. Our Island Story meets the Whig Interpretation of History. But as the Scottish referendum showed, Parliamentary sovereignty is not an assertion of Westminster omnipotence: it’s a legal ‘rule of recognition’—laws properly passed in Parliament are recognised by UK courts, so a Westminster Act repealing the European Communities Act of 1972 would duly be put into practice by the UK courts. That sovereignty has never been lost.


When it comes down to it, assertions of sovereignty are just a reasonably polite way of expressing resentment about interference by foreigners. Perhaps the SNP’s most successful argument was that independence would mean that decisions about Scotland would be taken by people who were concerned only about Scotland. They at least avoided adding explicitly “and not by the English”, though pejorative references to “Westminster” were intended to have that effect. Brexiteers are blunter: they want “Brussels” to stop interfering in British lives.


When pressed, both sets of secessionists acknowledge that there will be need to be cooperation afterwards with those we have just left. Implausibly, each argues cooperation would be better once union had been ended. The rejected would be more accommodating afterwards than they are today. This isn’t just wishful thinking, it’s rhetorically useful—anyone who suggests that other states might pursue their own interests, not ours, after a vote to leave can then be painted as aligned with foreigners. Not sufficiently Scottish, or not British enough and, like foreigners, not to be trusted. The appeal to patriotism is the first resort of the separatist.


Risk and Negativity


No one likes to be called negative, and psychologists tell us people like to say yes if they can. This matters for framing the referendum question. The SNP built an entire campaign on “Yes” meaning independence, but Mr Cameron was unable to persuade the Electoral Commission to have “Yes” mean Remain. (Somehow the Commission managed to rationalise away this contradiction: they bear the imprint of the last faction to sit upon them.) The opponents of change, or proponents of No, start with something of a disadvantage. If they criticise change, they are being negative. If they point to risks, they are “project fear”. What’s more, it’s easier to assert whatever you like if you always respond to criticism not by engaging with its content but by dismissing it as “project fear”. The disadvantages of the status quo will be concrete and evident. The changed world by contrast can be pretty much anything the voter wants. Scottish independence was going to produce a dynamic economy with the taxes of Luxembourg and the welfare state of Sweden. Brexiteers have spotted you can respond to virtually any criticism with a charge of fear-mongering. So to suggest that, say, the EU might not agree to free trade on Michael Gove’s terms is to do drum up fear. Treasury economic analysis is not engaged with but dismissed on the same basis. The parallels with Alex Salmond’s fantasy economics are exact.


This dovetails nicely with the patriotism argument. To suggest that the UK might not thrive outside the EU—say, that it might take a long time to refocus the economy from European to other trade, or that its security would be weakened by reduced cooperation—is to “talk down” your own country. This was a staple of the Scottish referendum: to suggest that Scotland might not do so well if independent was to describe it as “too wee, too poor, too stupid” and was “talking Scotland down”. It took the Leave Campaign a while to get there yet, but they now accuse the government of “losing faith in Britain”.

The reality is the risks of leaving mirror the advantages of staying. As in the Scottish referendum, the challenge for Remain is to find language which presents that positively: greater opportunity, rather than loss, increasing security rather than risk. In a doomed effort to bind his party together, the Prime Minister seemed in recent years to accept the characterisation of the EU as dysfunctional but Tory unity has gone: and the Leavers have gone full-on shrill. To begin a response with “I realise the EU is not perfect, but…” is to accept your opponents’ major premise.


Blame the Press


A distinct contrast between the two referendums is the stance of the print media, much of which supports change. (They see no inconsistency in opposing secession for Scotland and advocating it for Britain, it seems.) But the poor old BBC is once again the target of abuse from campaigners. Both leavers and nationalists complain of bias. Individual journalists are picked out for harassment – an Englishman by nationalist zealots, and a Scotswoman by fanatical leavers. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before protesters gather outside Broadcasting House, waving Union Jacks this time. In both cases, if the case for change fails, the national broadcaster will be too blame – too British first time, not British enough the second.


It’s the Economy…


It’s not surprising economic issues dominate the EU referendum, just as they did the Scottish. We are still (just about) emerging from the longest recession in living memory, and much of the unfocused dissatisfaction with politics is a reaction to stalled or fallen living standards. One very obvious parallel in the two campaigns is the arrival of a doorstop of economic analysis from the Treasury. This is to be welcomed, but it’s hard to imagine it will be much read. One can no doubt quibble about the numbers and the modelling, and the jibe that the Treasury can’t forecast next year, never mind the next 30 will hurt the more for having a grain of truth to it. Once again, the Governor of the Bank of England gets it in the neck for doing his job and pointing to economic risk and uncertainties.


These superficial similarities mask the real parallel. A key economic issue in both cases is that borders get in the way of trade. Naturally, it suits those who want to create or strengthen borders to deny this. But economists since David Ricardo and Adam Smith have been right about it. Certainly for developed economies, free trade promotes the welfare of everyone, and borders—physical, fiscal, or administrative—impede trade. That’s why countries worldwide invest time, effort and political capital creating free-trade areas. There is one neat symmetry in the UK and Scottish cases. Trade is the biggest economic issue in the EU referendum. Currency was an even bigger one in Scotland. People instinctively grasp the free-trade point, so Michael Gove simply asserts that the UK will remain part of a free-trade zone from Iceland to Belarus. In the Scottish referendum, voters instinctively grasped the benefit of a shared UK currency, so Alex Salmond simply asserted it would remain. Obviously, to question either proposition is to be in thrall to project fear. But neither proposition is true.


So Remainers need to plug away at the economic facts. But as with Scotland they also need to remember there’s more than just economics here. It’s an issue about peace and security, freedom of movement for education or retirement as well as employment, and common social standards.


Lessons from Likeness


The parallels between the Leave and Yes campaigns provoke a wry smile. It’s ironic to see Conservative ministers who dismissed the SNP’s arguments using them shamelessly. Form follows function in politics as well as biology, it seems. Similarly, one can’t help smirking a bit at Nationalists arguing the benefits of Union. (Moralists differ on the the virtue implicit in ‘doing the right thing for the wrong reason’: for my part, I’m happy with folk doing the right thing.)


It’s also easy to see two different nationalisms at work. Scottish nationalism has been out of the closet for years and defines England, or London, as the other. English nationalism is still not quite able to speak its name but defines the other as Europe, or Brussels. The divisions in the Conservative party, and the closely related UKIP phenomenon are some sort of emerging English nationalism.


But there is a deeper similarity in these campaigns. Scotland has always had its nationalists, and England its anti-Europeans. Today, however, these movements have purchase and wider support for the same reasons that Italy elects a comedian, France faces neofascist populists, and America gazes in horror and fascination at Donald Trump. Populations are economically dissatisfied and politically alienated. Simple solutions start to look attractive, especially to those who think they have the least to lose. The leap in support for the SNP was from former Labour voters in the less-well off areas: it was the poorest parts of the country which voted Yes. UKIP attracts its support from those who are economically left behind. The same pattern is evident in the EU referendum, with the added element that leavers include many people who feel immigrants directly threaten their economic position.


This cannot be fixed between now and 23 June. The EU referendum has to be argued on its merits, not its causes. The British population has to be persuaded, once again, of the arguments for both autonomy and solidarity: for self-rule and shared sovereignty at the same time. In the end, a majority of Scots were persuaded of this in 2014. There is a positive political, economic and social case to be made for the European Union, just as there are risks to be identified and fantasies to be exploded.


One of the lessons of the Scottish referendum, however, is that divisive processes have lasting consequences. The effects on political parties are fascinating but not what matter most. Divisions and cemented into fissures. Unless Britain finds a way to deal with the underlying causes—to persuade more of the population that they have a worthwhile stake in society, and that we are indeed all “in it together,” then the fissures will deepen, and voters will keep hankering after simplistic constitutional solutions to economic and social problems.