The two major referendums we’ve had during this Parliament – 2011’s on AV and 2014’s on Scottish independence – were both very different, but I think the after effect of both of them has been quite similar. In both cases, it was expected by many that the rejection of change would be the end of the issue for a long time, and things would go back the way they’d use to been. The issues that had led to the referendum being called would slowly fade away, and there’d be no need to consider any further change.
The result of the AV referendum was not just presented as a disaster for the Lib Dems, but also an indication that we would return to an age of two-party politics. After all, at that time Labour and the Tories were both up around 40% in the polls, and the growth in support for other parties hadn’t begun. The people had spoken, it was thought, and would now get over the idea that we could have multi-party politics in this country.
Unfortunately for that view, things haven’t proceeded in that way. The factors that led to the breakdown of old party loyalties which led to the 2010 election result that gave us the circumstances behind the AV referendum were all still in place, and a single referendum was never going to end that. The social factors that supported the old two-party system – the class-based cleavages – have been losing their power for years and that wasn’t changed by the AV campaign. Instead, what we’ve seen is a continued unravelling of party loyalties and the situation we’ve got now where reaching 35% in the polls regularly would seem like a commanding lead.
In retrospect, the most important electoral event of May 2011 is clearly the Scottish Parliament election where we had the supreme irony of a proportional electoral system delivering the single-party majority that our existing national system now seems unable to. That of course laid the ground for last year’s Scottish referendum which again was meant to settle a question for a generation or more.
Yet again, in the aftermath of the vote, the assumption was made that the issue was over and that the SNP would fade away again. That’s most clear in David Cameron’s speech the morning after, where he clearly thought the Unionist position was a lot stronger than it turned out to be. Again, the assumption was that after a referendum, the people would have spoken and the issue would be somehow resolved by this, yet the underlying issues that had led to the referendum happening hadn’t been resolved by it. If anything, the referendum result clarified them even more, and that’s led to the SNP’s rise in the national polls.
This is why referendums aren’t good ways of making decisions because they imagine that a result will ‘resolve the issue’ regardless of which way it goes. What referendum proponents neglect to understand is that they an only tackle surface factors, and because they’re concentrated on just one piece of an issue, they can never address the wider factors. Those advocating that we should have a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU ‘because we’d win it, and that’d end the argument’ should be aware that recent evidence suggests it would do anything but, and could well create even more issues in its wake.