The British Are Leaving?! The British Are Leaving?!
Prime Minster David Cameron announced last week that the United Kingdom would vote on June 23 to “stay” or “remain” in the European Union. In the 2015 election, 46.4 million UK citizens voted, and close to 50 million are expected to turn out in 2016 participate in a truly historic decision.
As Americans, we are quite used to voting on ballot measure issues—legalization of marijuana, minimum wage, bond measures for schools, raising and lowering taxes. Over 100 million people across 25 states will vote on some issue in 2016, with California leading the charge.
But this is new territory for the United Kingdom. Over the last century, the UK has voted on a handful of measures—the last major referendum was in 2011, and before that, 1975. I sat down with premier referendum expert Matt Qvortrup, Chair of Applied Political Sciences at Coventry University, to get his perspective. Matt first delved into referendum politics more than 20 years ago, studying the Danish referendum of the Maastricht treaty. Since then he has studied referendums in Italy, Uruguay and California, and is the author of Referendums and Ethnic Conflict.
Q: In 2015, you authored a paper that analyzes the two major referendums held by David Cameron’s government: the referendum of Scottish independence in 2014, and the referendum on electoral reform in 2011. You conclude that these two referendums are vastly different. Can you explain why?
A: Referendums are won when you can appeal to everyday issues. The referendum on electoral reform was basically a civil war between the two parties in the governing coalition, pitting Conservatives against Liberal Democrats on an issue of procedure. On the Scottish referendum, the voters had plenty of time to deliberate and debate the issues. The Scottish referendum was praised – even by the losers – because it allowed ordinary voters to discuss their political future. Why the difference? I think the technical nature of the first referendum bored voters. The Scotland one appealed to the voters. I guess the lesson is that referendums should be about issues that excite voters and not topics that only appeal to political aficionados.
Q: Historically, in the US, referendums fail 60% of the time because voters are reluctant to change. They tend to uphold the status quo and vote “no.” Your analysis of EU referendums suggests just the opposite. Why do think that is?
A: I think we have to distinguish between two worlds of referendums. There are constituencies and countries where referendums are part of everyday life – like in Switzerland and in US states like California. In Europe, there is at most one referendum every decade, and referendums are held by the government. Governments do not like to lose, so they tend to hold referendums only when they are certain that they will win. To put it bluntly, referendums have a higher success rate in Europe because European referendums are less democratic.
Q: The UK is used to voting by party, but the EU referendum isn’t about the party. In fact, politicians run the risk of alienating large blocs of voters if they endorse either side. Is the UK referendum uncharted territory for the political experts and campaigners?
A: Very much so. Politicians in Britain don’t really understand referendums. They think they win referendums by applying the same techniques as in elections. But referendums are about issues, not about individuals. The voters might take cues from political party leaders, but referendums also allow voters to disagree with their representatives. For example, 30 per cent of those who voted for the Scottish National Party voted against Scottish independence.
Q: The Electoral Commission’s decision to avoid a yes or no question in the EU poll was welcomed by many referendum experts. However, you say it actually doesn’t matter in this case. Why not? What does matter in a referendum campaign?
A: In general, voters are not swayed by the actual question on the ballot. In my book I did a statistical analysis the effect of so-called ‘emotive’ words and couldn’t find any statistically significant correlation.
You see, voters in Europe have thought about the issue for a long time before they enter the polling booth. What matters in a referendum are two things: how long the government has been in office and how the outcome will affect each individual voter’s pocketbook.
To win a referendum you need to appeal to ordinary voters’ fears and anxieties, but it’s a fine line; exaggerated claims don’t work. For instance, in December 2015, the Danish Liberal government lost a referendum on whether to join Europol, the Europe-wide police cooperation agreement. The government was falling behind in the polls so they claimed that a no vote would lead to more pedophilia. The Danish voters rejected this scaremongering and ultimately the referendum. What works in one campaign will not work in the next. Those trying to win the Brexit referendum will do well not to try to repeat the tricks from the Scottish referendum or the referendum on the electoral system.