Question Time Conundrum

(February 13, 2014)

Article Published on 8 February 2014

In nine months time, Scottish voters will be asked to decide whether they want to secede from the union and establish a separate state, or remain a part of the United Kingdom. Conservative proposals for an in-out referendum, should they win the next general election, will see voters throughout Britain deciding our future membership of the European Union in 2017. Both Scottish separation from the UK and UK separation from the EU are highly complex issues, which will have far-reaching implications for all, affecting generations to come. That is why I believe that before any political party makes a commitment to hold a referendum, it should first examine a number of important questions.

First, are referendums the best way for deciding Scotland and the UK’s future? Are the public interested in having an input? Are the public adequately informed on all of the issues? If not, is there time for people to become more informed by the time of the referendum? Do the public feel it’s their responsibility to decide on issues of a constitutional nature? Finally, how relevant do they feel that the referendum question is? Only by grappling with these matters can any party decide whether a referendum will produce a clear result, based on informed opinion and be in the best interests of the general public.

Do the public feel a referendum is required and are they likely to be well informed before being asked to vote in a referendum? Although referendums have become a regular focus for discussion in Britain under this Government, within our constitution they are, historically speaking, a relatively new and rare concept. Many countries in the world have written constitutions which enshrine some form of “validation by referendum”. Britain, on the other hand, lacks a written, codified constitution. Rather, we are governed by a system of convention and precedent heavily centred on the idea of representative democracy. Parliamentary democracy operates on voter delegation and entrusting Members of Parliament with the responsibility of representing the electorate’s views in parliamentary votes, subject to party political mandate. Therefore, the vast majority of the public are far less inclined to feel that voting in a referendum is their responsibility in comparison to their American or Irish counterparts.

This isn’t to say that the public has no interest in the outcome of referendums. We only need look at the current debate in Scotland to see that every Scot, whether for separation or not, has a strong opinion and interest in the matter. However, genuine interest from the public has to be the central driving force behind the holding of a referendum. Arguably, the debate over an in-out EU referendum has more to do with David Cameron appeasing his more right-wing backbenchers than genuine public interest.

We should also take into account the public’s disillusionment with the political process as a whole. A key SNP argument is that since the Conservatives have only one MP in Scotland, there is no voice for Scotland within the British Government. In the case of Europe, the continued prevarication of consecutive governments has made many voters distrustful of all the major parties. This has resulted in the public turning instead towards fringe parties such as UKIP. More importantly, this has driven the Conservative Party to promise its referendum in 2017 as part of a strategy to win a majority in 2015.

Are other issues higher up the political agenda than EU membership? I believe the vast majority of voters are most concerned about the cost of living, the rising price of bills, the fall in wages and job opportunities, which affect their day to day lives – not our membership of the European Union. A recent Guardian poll found that 56 per cent of people are against holding a referendum on EU membership in 2014; many citing that it is an unhelpful distraction at a time when serious action needs to be taken to improve standards of living and maintain an economic recovery.

The European debate is also too often skewed by the unhelpful bias of the right-wing media which, as the primary source of information for voters, try to limit the parameters of the debate. This often focuses on process rather than substance. The media water down the complexities of issues to personalise them. In the debate over a separate Scottish state, it is Alex Salmond versus David Cameron and Alistair Darling. Similarly, media reporting on the European Union is often portrayed as a struggle between David Cameron and his backbenchers, together with UKIP, or Cameron and the EU. This coverage restricts the depth of information voters receive and often detracts from the heart of the issue which should be what benefits EU membership brings to Britain and by the same token, what benefits being part of the UK brings to Scotland.

Are the public being made aware of the all the issues and consequences that flow from holding Scottish and EU referendums? This is paramount when it comes to the fundamental issues concerning Scottish separation and a British exit from the EU. Both would have huge economic implications, one of the most contentious being whether Scotland would keep the pound, something that the Government presently opposes. What kind of a role outside of the UK would Scotland play in the world after succession? Separation would also have huge ramifications for defence, raising issues such as the division of military assets between the UK and Scotland, and given the SNP’s anti-nuclear stance the future of our nuclear deterrent, currently based at Faslane in Argyll and Bute?

Similarly, if we left the EU, would we be allowed to trade in the European single market? A UK exit would also mean renegotiating hundreds of free trade agreements and treaties which the EU has negotiated on our behalf. A further concern is the real possibility of being left out of any future free trade agreement between the EU and the United States. With a small population and limited influence, what kind of a role would the UK have outside of the EU? These unanswered questions reflect a timetable based on political expediency and not necessarily national interest, further supporting the need for structured and careful consideration before the offering of a referendum.

Another concern is practicality. My colleague Mike Gapes, the Labour MP for Ilford South, pointed out in the House of Commons recently, that the Conservative proposals for a referendum in 2017 would clash with Britain’s rotation of the presidency of the Council of Ministers, which would create all sorts of confusion for ministers and our European counterparts alike. I have made similar observations about the draft proposed wording: “Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?” This question could give the impression to some that Britain isn’t already a member of the EU. In both these instances, the organisation of a referendum is failing on a practical level.

What is evident is that these questions have not been considered satisfactorily. Voters are likely to be ill-informed about an EU referendum, and do not necessarily see the consequences to their lives of a yes or no vote; and both the question and timing raise doubts about practicality. This demonstrates why it is vital that before any political party considers pledging a referendum, it should first consider each of the questions above, and the likely consequences of a Scottish withdrawal from the UK, and a UK withdrawal from the EU, and only offer one when all of them have been considered adequately. In doing this, parties will be able to frame the debate over the UK and Scotland’s future in clearer terms, receiving a higher level of public participation and legitimacy in the process.

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