Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Against referenda

Chris Dillow, as is so often the case, makes a perfectly reasonable point:
"It's perfectly coherent therefore to support a referendum on independence but oppose independence itself."
Absolutely. And in relation to the situation up here I can see the appeal of this point. All the evidence suggests that the SNP were more popular that the policy that is their reason for being and that what people in Scotland desired was a change in government, rather than the constitution.

Why not, then, hold a referendum to demonstrate to the nationalists once and for all that the majority of Scots, as is repeatedly demonstrated in opinion polls, do not want independence?

The answer is that this is not how referenda are understood by those who advocate them. Would the nationalists accept such a referendum as the final word on the subject?

I doubt it. The historical experience has been that politicians advocate referenda when they think they'll get the answer they want and oppose them when they think they won't.

As often as not, they are held when governments want to by-pass internal divisions in their own parties or even Cabinets, as we've seen in this country with the European issue - or to by-pass the legislature altogether, a common enough feature in democracies that have copied the American model of the separation of powers.

It has a somewhat sinister historical precedent with the experience of Bonapartism - and in more recent years we've witnessed governments holding referenda until they get the result they want.

Is there any reason to think this pattern would be any different in the Scottish case? I don't see why. By the measures we have, we already know that Scots don't want independence. Opinion polls tell us this - and the result of the election failed to produce a majority for pro-independence parties. Yet the nationalists still bang the drum for a referendum - what with them not having got the message they want yet.

Chris Dillow implies that Menzies Campbell's opposition to a referendum is down to the fact that he doesn't trust the people. I can't speak for our Ming but if I were in his position I'd take exactly the same view. Because it is not the people I don't trust; their view is already clear. It is the government - should we actually ever get one in Scotland - that I don't trust. I don't trust them to accept an answer they don't like. I don't trust them to stop asking essentially the same question in a different form. I don't trust them not to use all their resources at their disposal to artificially bolster their side of the argument and I don't trust them not to artificially polarise the debate.

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