Sunday, June 10, 2012

The intrinsic value of constitutional referenda

After all the Jubilee 'excitement' last week, I speculated that it would be a deeply traumatic experience for some royalists if they ever had to go through a referendum on retaining the monarchy, in spite of the likelihood that they would win handsomely. But I've been thinking about that some more, and it occurs to me that the mere fact of a referendum itself would mean - in a sense - that the monarchists had already lost. After all, the principle they hold most dear is that the monarchy is a fact of life, something that everyone accepts is 'out of bounds' for political discussion. The minority of dissenters who do exist can be rationalised away by pretending that they are much smaller in number than they truly are (the media help enormously in that respect), and are killjoys with perhaps just a hint of mental instability about them. As a royalist put it to me after I condemned the shouting down of a republican protest : "Of course these people have a right to protest, but the rest of us have a right to point out they are plonkers." Really? Wanting a say over who is your Head of State in the 21st Century makes you a plonker?

A referendum would change that narrative forever, despite the likely result. Elizabeth Windsor would be our Head of State not because forces that mere humans dare not interfere with had willed it so, but because we as a people had decided by democratic means that she is preferable to the alternatives. OK, that process would be ad hoc and less than satisfactory, but it's in the nature of any democratic decision that it can be revisited in the future, and everyone would know that. Just think how different the coverage of the Jubilee would have been had such a referendum taken place over the last few years. It would have been unthinkable for 'historians' to go on TV and treat the people as passive (albeit uniformly appreciative) spectators of a grand, ongoing, centuries-old story that the royals are free to shape for themselves. It would have been unthinkable to exclude all anti-monarchist views on the grounds that the crown is an 'apolitical' institution which everyone must unite around. There would have had to be time devoted to the views of the minority of people who voted against the political choice of monarchy, and there would have had to be sober analysis of how the propaganda value of the Jubilee spectacle was being used by the monarchy to win favour with a people who were now demonstrably its democratic masters.

To some extent, the independence referendum will have a similar intrinsic value, regardless of the outcome. Although independence is plainly not regarded as "out of bounds" for the democratic process, that is a relatively recent development, and even now the principle of self-determination is not universally accepted - there are still neanderthals like Alastair Campbell who believe that Scotland can quite legitimately be held captive within the UK if the English don't want us to go. So even if the worst happens and there is a No vote, the referendum will be a confirmational moment, one that will represent a defeat for those who would much rather file the 1707 treaty away as some kind of 'eternal union' that the Scots as a people cannot reconsider at a time of their own choosing.

One parallel with the monarchy debate is that there are still some people out there (mostly but not exclusively south of the border) who interpret opposition to the British union as a form of 'immaturity'. A few years ago, there was an item on Alan Titchmarsh's ITV show about independence. Titchmarsh reacted to Angus MacNeil's arguments with an impressively varied repertoire of incredulous facial expressions, and then wrapped up by saying with an exasperated air "let's see if we can all get along for the rest of the programme, shall we?". 'We', of course, referred to the happy British family - or rather a family that would be happy if it wasn't for the children throwing temper tantrums and electing SNP governments. That mindset will certainly be challenged by a referendum campaign that accords independence parity of esteem with the 'happy family' fantasy.

Another parallel is that there are many institutions which treat the goodness of British national unity as a 'given', and don't believe that this in any way detracts from their political neutrality. Regardless of the outcome, the referendum process will force those institutions to make a long-overdue choice - they can be pro-union, or they can be politically neutral, but they can't be both.


  1. GrassyKnollingtonJune 10, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    Good post James. There was never ever meant to be a referendum on independence and for unionists the fact we're even talking about it, let alone preparing for it happening is intensely painful and plain wrong.

    I love hearing Johann Lamont longing for it to be got out of the way and the BBC's Raymond Buchanan's exasperated island tones as he is forced to report on "Salmond's referendum" yet again.

    Last week his sidekick in the BBC Radio Scotland newsroom helpfully asked him "how much longer are we going to have to hear this sort of thing?"

    They really, really hate it which is why I really, really love it.

  2. The shock of the SNP majority/suddenly there's going to be a referendum hasn't ever gone away, and leaves me wondering what steps will be taken if there's a "No" vote to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.