Nicola Sturgeon enters a fantasy world
Britain’s first referendum was held on June 6th 1975 to approve or reject the EEC agreement reached 2 years’ earlier by Edward Heath. Clement Attlee said that referendums were “a device for despots and dictators.” In the 1970s, Mrs Thatcher thought Lord Attlee was probably right. Louis Napoleon (Emperor Napoleon III) used 2 referendums just over 12 months to overturn the fragile French Republic in 1851 and confirm his December coup d’état as legal and constitutional. Hitler held 4 referendums in 1933 (to leave the League of Nations), 1934, 1936 and 1938 (they were then banned for 60 years), so did Mussolini in 1934 (ostensibly an election, it was seen as “the second referendum of Fascism”) as did Pinochet in 1980 and Ferdinand Marcos (who used 3) and JR Jayawardene in Sri Lanka who used a referendum to prolong parliament by 6 years. Colonel George Papadopoulos and the Greek Generals seized power using a referendum in 1973 to legitimise their rule. Putting too much trust in Referendums, in other words, is to cosy up with some very disturbing bedfellows. We have just had two referendums in two years. Surely that is enough for now.
Today, when we might have expected the news to be dominated by the final stages of the Brexit bill going back through the Commons, the First Minister of Scotland said she planned to trigger Indy 2.
While I think there is a case to be made for a version of Brexit that recognises the 62% vote for remain in Scotland, and while I think a compromise approach may well give the UK overall some access to the EU, however we pursue Brexit, I also think that now is not the time to be discussing these details. More than that, Nicola Sturgeon demonstrates today that she is prepared to pick and choose which referendums she accepts and which she rejects. Either we accept in principle what is returned in a referendum or we do not hold a referendum at all. I am not a fan of the referendum as a concept-I think it is a very clumsy tool, but we cannot keep rerunning referendums until we get the result we want. Isn’t that what is done in Europe? Isn’t that why we have rejected Europe?
In 2016, Greece voted in a referendum by 61% to 39% to reject the Austerity measures. No one paid any attention. In 2008, Ireland voted against the Lisbon treaty by 53% but it was ratified nonetheless after Ireland held a second referendum (as it also did in 2001 when it rejected the Nice treaty and had to try again). The Lisbon treaty was a replacement for the TCE which was roundly rejected by referendums in France and the netherlands in 2005. Significantly, Lisbon was not the subject of a second French referendum.
As for the actual substance of Indy 2, this is very confused. The first Minister might have a case that the Brexit decision represents a “significant and material” change and chimes in with the SNP manifesto, but the practice of holding another referendum and getting the result she wants is by no means certain. More than that, even if she gained a “Yes” for independence, which is far from certain, there is no guarantee that Scotland would even be allowed to stay in or moreover re-enter the European family as a separatist state. The Spanish, for instance, mindful of their own Catalonian issues, might well be reluctant to reward such displays of independence.