The age of the three referendums – why we are only partly through this significant constitutional moment

15th May 2021

One of the more refreshing shifts in historiography was when historians turned from ‘the English civil war’ to ‘the war of the three kingdoms’ – acknowledging that the conflicts of the mid-1600s were more to do with the politics and conflicts of Scotland and Ireland than a purely English affair.

Future historians looking at the age of Brexit may similarly have to see how Scotland and Ireland were causes of immense political instability and potential constitutional crisis.

For the referendum we all know about – and the one we are all preoccupied about – may for historians seem to be just the first of three.

And those historians may group together the 2016 Brexit referendum with a yet-to-come Scottish independence referendum and border poll in (Northern) Ireland.

It will be the fall-out of the three referendums taken together which will be the end and beginning of a chapter in our constitutional and political history.

This is not to predict the outcome of those referendums – or the outcome of what would then (if anything) that follows those referendums.

In this time of unwelcome and unexpected political surprises, few can be confident in forecasting what things will happen next.

But the 2016 referendum may be seen as just one move of a gear in something more complex – the recasting of the state of the United Kingdom.

The one thing which may be certain is that the (perceived) mandate of any referendum result now has a greater charge than before.

Brexit was carried through at speed and with no real planning in the face of opposition (and of reality) because of the purchase of a referendum result.

It is therefore difficult to deny, if either or both of the upcoming referendums (if they happen) vote for change, that such a change can be opposed on the basis of a higher priority for the will of parliament.

We may find that one cannot pick and choose the ‘will of the people’ – if there are to be referendums, then the expectation is now (more than before) that the results will be implemented.

But we also may find that the experience of Brexit will turn people against voting for further drastic changes – that the next referendums are reactionary rather than radical in their nature.

Of course: there will be those historians – like there are for the civil wars – who will say, with hindsight, that the outcome was inevitable all along.

Those of us here at the time, however, can only seen uncertainty and multiple contingencies.


16 thoughts on “The age of the three referendums – why we are only partly through this significant constitutional moment”

  1. You omit the disaster of the referendum on AV – only a micro-step in the direction of PR but it’s working out that the Tories are using that as an excuse for imposing FPTP on the few places it has been superseded.

    1. the NOTOAV campaign was headed by the Elliot / Cummings nexus – an early victory for the Tufton St crew

      Although i suspect the genesis goes even further, to the referendum on the Northern Assembly in 2004 – you don’t need to dig to far to see the same actors at play, same MO

  2. Interesting. But weren’t the ‘teens’ already the decade of three referendums – AV, Scottish and Euro? It’s true that only one of them led directly to change but the dam was well and truly broken.

    The problem, of course, is that no one knows where or how to stop. We came within a few – OK quite a few – votes of a second EU referendum, albeit that could be presented as confirmatory rather than contradictory. We are now facing the issue of when to have the next Scottish referendum – it will surely come.

  3. Maybe four. The possibility of a Welsh Independence referendum shouldn’t be discounted

    1. I live in Cornwall, where there’s a persistent little knot of characters determined to achieve Kernow independence.
      England, NI, Scotland, Wales and Kernow. And maybe, then, Dibley.

  4. Out of curiosity, what about Wales? Hypothetically, should Scotland and Northern Ireland decide to leave the UK and following that the appetite for independence in Wales shoots through through the roof, what would happen then? What are the legal and constitutional mechanisms Wales would have to go through, are they the same as for Scotland?
    Not sure where/what to look for, if there’s a good “beginners guide” somewhere out there please let me know.

    1. I’s entirely possible that a Scotland vote to leave the UK would trigger an increase in pro-independence sentiment in Wales, not least due to losing the reassurance that there’s another, larger country within the UK which also sees itself as significantly different from England. The question of “how” is a very good one. Wales is much more firmly tied in to England. And there’s also the mechanics of the border – far more crossing points than the Scottish one, and a far bigger proportion of the population crossing it every day for work.

      There’s a long way to go before that becomes an issue, though. There’s currently more support for the breakup of the UK in England than there is in Wales.

  5. I would like to step back a bit. The union of England and Wales with Scotland, or “North Britain” as the Unionist Scots preferred to call it for a while, was the start of the project that came to be known as the British Empire. Nobody ever spoke of the English Empire; it was always the British Empire, and the North Britons were very enthusiastic participants in that project, which ran for two hundred and fifty years.

    The United Kingdom was, from the outset, an imperial headquarters, as Rome and Venice had been and as Austria, Spain, Ottoman Turkey, Mughal India and Qing China still were at the start of the project.

    The British Empire was the last to go and if we look at the headquarters of the other empires in the list we see that all of them disintegrated.

    The glue that stuck them together was, in each case, the imperial project. Each of them developed an administrative class and a military class which soaked up their spare young men, each of them developed an economic system that was driven by imperial trade.

    The British Empire disintegrated and Edward Heath, a man that I had the pleasure of a slight acquaintance with, and for whom I find an increased respect as time passes, had the idea of turning the old imperial headquarters into a modern European nation state.

    Sadly Heath’s project was derailed by Thatcher, for no good reason other than vindictiveness as far as I can see, and we live with the catastrophe that will now ensue.

  6. My chief concern about a border poll in Northern Ireland is what happens if it’s held too soon and there’s a narrow No vote. If that happens, an inevitably bitter campaign will leave nothing resolved constitutionally, but both sides of the argument much more angry than they already are.

  7. To be fair, it is England that has caused immense political instability and potential constitutional crisis, rather than Scotland and Ireland. England chose Brexit. Scotland and Ireland just reacted to their decision.

  8. “The one thing which may be certain is that the (perceived) mandate of any referendum result now has a greater charge than before.
    Brexit was carried through at speed and with no real planning in the face of opposition (and of reality) because of the purchase of a referendum result.”

    One possible scenario is that the UK government prevents the Scottish government from holding a legally-binding referendum, but the SNP go ahead with an ‘advisory’ one – but the Brexit referendum itself was supposedly only ‘advisory’, and recent history tells us that once a proposition is passed by referendum on an ‘advisory’ basis then the outcome can create its own, unstoppable momentum.

  9. The UK economy has seen a 21% deterioration in its finances since 2016 due to Brexit alone, apparently. The rate of economic decline will speed up and extend through more sectors. At the same time we’ve got what seems to be an ongoing Covid-19 economic / public funds crisis underway.

    I think the UK (as a polity) faces a looming ECONOMIC shipwreck (of the glug-glug type with few survivors) as well as major political difficulties.

    I can’t see the Tories being capable of governance in such a dire situation. I can’t see Labour as being capable of providing an alternative government either.

    In such an awful scenario, Scotland and Northern Ireland will have to grab whatever lifeboats they can find, just before MV.UK sinks.

    The only lifeboats there are are (1) independence for Scotland with access to the EU single market and customs union on the same terms as Northern Ireland now enjoys; and (2) union with the republic of Ireland for Northern Ireland, however little the unionists like it and however much it costs the trade Northern Ireland has with England and Wales.

    Professional sailors will tell you that taking to the lifeboats is only the better option when you’ll definitely drown if you don’t.

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