Scotland – time for Project Facts

As Liberal Democrats, we do not support independence and we don’t want a second referendum; we have better ideas about the constitution. However, we must live up to our title as democrats and must recognise that there is now a clear majority at Holyrood for such a referendum. It would be foolish and self-defeating to oppose it. We must not repeat the mistake we made at the 2019 General Election when we were proposing to ignore the outcome of the EU referendum by not going back to the electorate for a second vote. That surely damages our reputation and cost us votes.

But we can take a constructive, different and positive view about how a second independence vote should be organised, learning lessons from the disastrous EU referendum process involving four years of discord and wrangling, and resulting in an outcome that few seem to be happy with. The simple yes/no, in/out binary approach to referenda with little in the way of facts, just opinions, guesswork and hope, and a promise on negotiations later, is not the way forward this time. It will give no guarantee that the outcome, if in support of separation, will meet the expectations of all those voting for change. The reason for this is the massive imbalance between the population of Scotland and the rest of the UK with whom Scotland will be negotiating and who will be very much affected by separation. Their representatives will bring a different set of requirements to the table that will potentially have a huge influence on the outcome. Another White Paper, as promised by the SNP, given this scenario will serve no real purpose other than again being a wish list and merely a basis for negotiations from one side only.

So, in my view, it is essential that we have negotiations before, and not after, the referendum. This would establish some heads of agreement providing clarity to voters about what would happen in a number of key areas, the areas of joint interest which caused so much debate and disagreement last time. e.g. currency, pensions, defence. It could also deal with the scope for continuing to share services such as the DVLA. It might be called ‘A joint prospectus for independence’. The outcome would generate meaningful debate on the pros and cons because it would contain some facts and some answers. If the subsequent vote is in favour of independence then the details could be reasonably quickly worked up for inclusion in a Separation Bill. Clarity would also be required before a vote on the question of EU membership and so a prior view from the EU would also be necessary, shedding light on another key issue, the prospect of a hard border with England. Another fundamental need, but outside the scope of this prospectus, is for hard and trustworthy evidence from unbiased experts on those things that would be for an independent Scotland to decide upon – such as taxation, welfare, economic prospects and borrowing potential. And voters will need to know the true cost of setting up a new country. It all comes down to one thing: the overwhelming need for facts before a vote.

Even with the availability of facts it is unlikely that collectively we as Lib Dems would change our minds about independence; the gut feeling of most of us is that it is wrong, though some individuals might be open to persuasion. But, continuing the positive and constructive agenda, we should not just argue that Scotland is better off in the UK but should accept that there are problems with the union as currently constituted and administered which should be addressed and that these are partly to blame for the rise in support for independence. It is not a union of equals. Scotland’s voice often goes unheard. This leads to tensions, inconsistencies, frustration and lack of trust. We need to say that independence in our view is not the answer; a different kind of union is, some kind of federal system that would benefit the whole of the UK not break it up, a system that would open the door for Devo Max. This is a message that should go out from Lib Dems now and particularly during a referendum campaign and we should try to get other pro-union parties on board. Gordon Brown has already expressed similar views. We should call for a Citizens’ Assembly, Constitutional Convention or Royal Commission, whatever is most appropriate, to examine the possibilities and potential and make proposals. Indeed, we should point out that if, again, there is a NO vote, we will undertake with others to make this happen. We will not put up with empty promises watered down or forgotten after a successful campaign. It’s time to put the union on a new footing.

This poses the dilemma: should we be pushing for a third question on the referendum ballot paper relating to this alternative approach and what should that question be? This is a difficult one, not least because we would not want to split the vote three ways. My suggestion is that any third question might only be for those voting NO, in other words make the NO a two part question. Something like this happened with the original referendum asking people if they supported the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and if they supported it having tax adjusting powers, so there is a precedent. Having a positive response to such a question would certainly make it difficult to sideline if independence were once again rejected.

If independence were to be supported it is my view that there would have to be a clear majority for it resulting from the referendum. Something as fundamental as breaking up the UK after over 300 years, on the basis of what might turn out to be a miniscule majority of voters in Scotland supporting the idea, would lead to disquiet and could leave the result open to challenge. I am not talking about a super majority requirement but it seems that requiring a clear 5% margin is not an unreasonable thing to ask for given the nature of the impact across the UK and even beyond. For the same reason, it might also be prudent to require a minimum turnout of registered voters.

Finally, we should turn the ‘project fear’ slur back on those who make it every time it is made. We should point out that it is right and unsurprising to be fearful of the unknown and of major change. It is not something to be mocked or criticised. What are needed to allay fears are facts and information that is difficult to refute. Getting those facts and that information is at the root of what I proposes in this paper. Perhaps our campaign should be known as Project Facts

* Barry Turner is a member of the East Lothian Liberal Democrats and a former East Lothian councillor. He has had a long career as a town planner in English local government and subsequently worked for the Westminster government examining structure and regional plans.

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  • Peter David Roberts 25th May '21 - 9:41am

    I like the approach but not the exclusion of yes voters in the alternative proposition. I would favour a conditional question. If the vote for independence is rejected….

  • Indeed, Peter – a multi-question ballot was something I proposed for the 2014 independence referendum, way back in 2012:

    There would be no need to split the vote three ways. As was the case in 1997, the second question – or, as I prefer to call it, the second proposal – would only be “activated” if the first proposals (i.e. independence) is rejected. This was true in 1997, as clearly the issue of tax-raising powers for a devolved institution is rendered academic if the public reject the creation of that assembly. It need not be as complicated as some have often suggested.

    Where I would disagree is the question of a threshold. As referenda have no legal standing other than for advisory purposes, it’s difficult to insist on this. There is also the inescapable fact that no such requirement has been made in any recent referendum, making it difficult to argue for an exception to be made now. There is a case for creating a legally defined role for referenda within a written constitution, but that’s another issue…

  • Mark Bennett 25th May '21 - 12:27pm

    a briliant idea – start the independence negotiations now in tandem perhaps with a review to create UK federal structures. We must not repeat the mistakes of 2016 i.e. vote for airy nosense and then learn that none of it works. The UK cannot ignore the clear choice of a majority in Scotland that wants to look at independence again.

  • George Thomas 25th May '21 - 1:13pm

    An anti-devolution, anti-EU government was formed a little over a year ago and now the people living in Northern Ireland are seeing changes being imposed on them, damage to their local economy and the very people negotiating the protocol saying it’s not fit for purpose – a confusing and worrying state of affairs. That anti-devolution, anti-EU government will soon be taking the same approach with Wales (large projects imposed on Wales with confusion and damage to the local economy) and could easily start doing it to Scotland.

    “it is right and unsurprising to be fearful of the unknown and of major change” but that also applies to staying in the UK. Devo max is the only answer that makes sense but the facts that are needed is how that wins enough votes in England to be brought through. The clearest path currently is further attacks on devolution and, by some distance, second clearest is independence.

  • Well, this effectively gives the UK Government a veto over independence as they will clearly have no incentive to reach any reasonable settlement and indeed no reason to enter into any negotiations. So it seems to be a nonstarter from that point of view.

    As for a multiple choice referendum, I seemed to recall the unionist parties in 2014 rejected the offer of having a second question on the ballot paper on devo max on the grounds that it would confuse the electorate and also, of course, because there was no agreement amongst them about what devo max meant or would mean. I cannot detect any changes since then which would make it any more feasible: the Tories are rolling back devolution, Labour are talking about a constitutional convention and the Lib Dems about an as yet undefined federal structure. And both the latter depend on England and Wales agreeing so that would presumably have to wait until after the next UK General Election in the unlikely event that any common position could be defined.

    Overall, I think unionists need to start working out how to sell the benefits of the union on the assumption that Johnsonian British nationalism prevails for about the next decade in England and consequently will decide which UK Government Scotland gets regardless of how it votes.

  • Brad Barrows 25th May '21 - 5:58pm

    I liked the start of the article where the author made the point that, as ‘democrats’, it was important to recognise that a pro-independence majority was elected earlier this month. Unfortunately he then undid his ‘democrat’ credentials by suggesting the the rules of the next referendum be fixed by requiring more than a simple majority.

  • @ Barry Turner “breaking up the UK after over 300 years…… ”

    I don’t recall a referendum taking place about setting it up in the first place, Barry. More a case of bailing out a failed private enterprise engineered by a select ‘parcel’ of roguish entrepreneurs who had burnt their fingers and had friends at Court.

    “We should call for a Citizens’ Assembly”… but …The Times reported in July, 2019,……. “both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats have said that they will not be taking part in the assembly, which is being set up by ministers to consider Scotland’s future”. Have you got Willie’s agreement for this ?

    And just how democratic, accountable or representative would such an Assembly be ? Who elects them ? Who are they answerable to ? I gather the current Chair of the existing Citizens Assembly Scotland is a former Labour MEP who lost his seat.

  • Love the idea of the threshold. I remember the Labour Party engineering the minimum number of the electorate to vote in the first Devolution vote. This meant that people that did not vote (due to being recently dead?) were counted as voting, “No” to the idea.
    My dear old Grandad who had signed the petition for Home Rule for Scotland in the 1950s (the petition had 3 million signatures but was quietly shelved because the Unionist parties were the only game in town and weren’t interested) passed away shortly before the vote and so was counted as a “No.”
    Liberal? Not very.
    Democratic? You’re having a laugh.

  • GOVERNMENT OF SCOTLAND BILL. (Hansard, 30 May 1913) › historic-hansard › commons
    The principle of this Bill is to be found in the creation of a Scottish Legislature, and a Scottish Executive responsible to it, with powers to deal with those peculiarly …

    Scottish independence: The parliament that never was – BBC … › news › uk-scotland-scotland-p…
    17 Sept 2014 — In 1913, William Cowan presented a successful Scottish home rule bill to Westminster, but the outbreak of World War One prevented the …

  • Paul Bennett 26th May '21 - 7:38am

    I believe that the important thing here, which I advocated for the EU Referendum, and wasn’t done, is consultation BEFORE the vote. That way, people may actually find out what they will be voting for.

  • Rf Winfield 26th May '21 - 8:18am

    The problem of requiring a threshold, whether 5% margin or any other figure, is the danger that this would bring disaster if the result showed this was achieved. Imagine what the consequences would be if the “Yes” campaign achieved over 50% but less than the threshold. Say the “Yes” vote secured 54%, and the Noes were at 46%. To deny the result would be untenable, and would lead to inescapable accusations that a positive result, i.e. vote for independence, was being stolen. That would indeed cause a constitutional crisis, and almost certainly immense civil disruption. Does no-one remember what happened in Ireland a century ago?

  • John Marriott 26th May '21 - 8:45am

    Yes, I really do think that anyone who is a resident in Scotland but not those born in Scotland but no longer resident there*, should be allowed to vote on whether their country should become a completely independent state. There should be three choices on the ballot paper 1. Complete Independence 2. Maximum Devolution within an eventual Federal United Kingdom 3. The Status Quo.

    I would suggest that these choices could be placed by the voter in order of preference if they so desired. By a process of elimination and second choices used etc, an eventual ‘winner’ would emerge. A twist in the tail might be if residents in the other U.K. nations had a similar poll to the Scots. Now THAT would be fun!

    *I would not include people born in Scotland and living abroad, including England, Wales and NI for the same reason as I oppose U.K. citizens living abroad voting in our General Election. You need to be consistent.

  • Mario Caves 26th May '21 - 9:33am

    “As Liberal Democrats, we do not support independence and we don’t want a second referendum”

    I fear that you are confusing the means with the end.
    Scotland does not want independence. Scotland wants membership of the closest and biggest trading block on our doorstep, independence is just the means to that end. If Scotland leaves the UK, it will be with the assurance, whether formal or informal, that it will be able to join the EU in a short time.

    One of the most important political issues of the current time for me is our relationship with our nearest trading partners. We should have close ties with out European neighbours, not isolate ourselves from them. If the means to rejoining the EU is that the UK ends up as individual member countries rather than a union of countries, then so be it, our “United” Kingdom has outlived it’s usefulness and is an unnecessary layer of government now that the EU exists.

    As your opening sentence appears to agree, the UK constitution is broken and needs radical reform.

  • Westminster and Holyrood could agree the timing, wording, franchise and structure of an independence referendum. What we need to define is in what circumstances Scotland would drop their demand for independence and see if Westminster could agree to this. This would be best done in the context of a constitutional settlement decided by a People’s Assembly of all the constituent parts of the UK.

  • Peter Martin 26th May '21 - 12:01pm

    Lib Dems seemed to be in agreement with the EU that the UK’s leaving bill should be something like £40 billion.

    What is Lib Dem opinion on Scotland’s leaving bill to the UK? Or is that somehow completely different for Scotland and it should be £0?

    Incidentally I think it should be zero too, or close to it. And so should it have been for the UK leaving the EU. No doubt we’ll be given another similar bill if we ever do wish to rejoin!

  • @David – the problem with the 2019 assembly was that it wasn’t set to openly query various aspects of Scotland’s future. It was set up to work out how to convince the public that independence was a good idea. Joanna Cherry said as much in public more than once.

    We can argue about whether or not the Scottish Parliament represents a majority Indy view when the votes for ‘pro-referendum’ parties were less than 50% and that those parties made the usual pre-election claims that a vote for them was not a vote for independence or a referendum, but that’s a distraction which doesn’t help us.
    It’s vital we remain clear that we believe that both independence and a referendum is not in Scotland’s interests and that there are many more pressing issues which could and should be dealt with first, and that talking about the constitution is a way for the Scottish Government to avoid proper scrutiny of its responsibilities. Polling shows most Scots aren’t keen on a referendum right now, but there’s a overly vocal and disruptive minority who won’t let us talk about anything else and the media loves the drama, so we need to be smart.

    It’s right we require anyone advocating for another referendum presents a clear case for how an independent Scotland would work, including the economy and currency. We know that they’ve shied away from this so far because they know that it won’t survive scrutiny. Various key people in the independence movement have encouraged their campaign to steer clear of facts and to focus on ‘telling stories’ and so on. We can’t allow them to control the narrative.

    One tactic is to claim that they can’t give a worked example of how the economy would function in an independent Scotland as it could have a different government, and it would be for the people of Scotland could decide which approach to take. But as most of us predicted with Brexit, voting for a moon ladder doesn’t make it happen. Logically, their argument means they should provide a range of plausible approaches and what that means for the people.

    Barry is right we need to challenge the childish “Project Fear” attack line. Who on earth is proud that their politics is so ideological that they scorn people wanting to evidence that we’ll have a thriving economy, jobs, pensions and functioning public services? Of course we’re scared of something that will do us harm! Not being scared of the demonstrably dangerous thing is abnormal.

  • @ Fiona Thank you, I very much appreciate the trouble you have gone to explain your point of view.

    As far as Barry’s suggestion of a Citizens Assembly is concerned, though, the questions still remain. How democratic, accountable or representative would such an Assembly be ? Who elects them ? Who are they answerable to ?…… and just as important, who sets them up ? For sure it won’t be four Lib Dem MSPs as things stand at the moment.

    I would like a genuinely first class academic study of all the issues….. and Scotland has a sufficient number of academics/experts to undertake this. It should include people of stature such as Tom Devine, Denis Mollison and John Curtice. The talent/expertise is out there (on both sides of the argument) if somebody takes the initiative to set it up.

    As you yourself say, project fear should be a non starter.

  • Having spent much of the day watching the Cummings version of how the chaotic Johnson runs the UK government, I’m not surprised a great many Scots have concluded that independence in a 5 million population fully autonomous country (similar in size to Denmark & New Zealand) run by the competent Ms Sturgeon is a more attractive alternative.

  • @fiona

    There is a 13 seat majority in the Scottish Parliament for parties supporting a second independence referendum which proportionately is equivalent to a 65 seat majority in the Westminster parliament. Both the SNP and the SGP were clear that they intended to proceed with a second referendum.

    I wonder if you opposed the AV referendum on the grounds that the party which pressed for it had only secured 23% of the votes in the UK General Election?

    So the Lib Dems need to decide whether they support parliamentary democracy or not.

    On the issue of the referendum itself no doubt you will be pressing for binding commitments from the UK Government on its economic, welfare, constitutional and other reserved policy issues. If not, you are really only making the case in a different form that you think Scotland is incapable of being a successful independent country and must therefore always do what England decides.

  • But is Sturgeon really competent, or does it just seem that way when Johnson is presented as the only choice and her mistakes are brushed under the carpet and explained away by loyal party supporters?

    Plenty of mistakes were made in Scotland too. We were still sending hospital patients to care homes without negative COVID tests long after it was known to be dangerous. Our recently retired health minister was giving interviews to say that shaking hands was just fine at the same time that Johnson was mocked for doing so. The outbreak in Edinburgh last February was covered up, apparently to ‘avoid panic’ and the Scottish Government were totally and publicly on board with the delays to lock-down.

    The practical suspension of Freedom of Information regulations was particularly dodgy, meaning that journalists were unable to get answers to key questions in anything like the time required for it to be useful. There was a lot of talk about openness and transparency, but very little of it in action. But if you hold regular press conferences and give long answers that don’t actually answer the question you can get away with it.

    The business section in particular has taken a huge hit, with small businesses in Scotland often getting less support than their English equivalents, and a lot of the COVID relief money still held back to be used to fund election promises.

    Away from COVID there have been monumental mistakes in education, and no-one really knows what’s happening in health, except a lot of massaging of the figures and tough luck if you want to catch a ferry anytime soon. The ferries that were ‘launched’ with much publicity a couple of years ago are still not completed, not to mention the possible misuse of public funds in relation to under-writing Liberty Steel.

    Of course Johnson is incompetent and everyone else looks better, but Sturgeon and the SNP government’s relative competence is more to do with their skills at whataboutery than running things.

  • @ Fiona I think you’ll find most people think Ms Sturgeon is competent, and even though I didn’t vote SNP, after nearly sixty years of political activism, I certainly do.

    Given it’s now fourteen years (and thirteen MSPs less) since the Lib Dems had any power at Holyrood, it could also be legitimately said that’s “more to do with their skills at whataboutery than running things”.

  • Regarding a super-majority. Realistically, you can’t settle something so important when the population is split almost 50/50, which is why a super-majority is important. I wonder however if a better solution would to require a super-majority BOTH ways?

    So…. have a referendum on the basis that:
    > 60% for independence means Scotland becomes independent.
    > 60% for staying in the UK means Scotland stays in the UK.
    Anything in between means the matter is not settled and another referendum is automatically scheduled for – say – 5 years’ later, on the same basis. You could obviously tweak the 60% figure if you think the supermajority requirement should be less/greater.

    I know people might object to having continual referenda but – let’s face it, if the nationalists lose the next referendum, you can virtually guarantee that within months, the SNP will have made up some excuse to demand a 3rd referendum anyway (whereas, if they win, even by 0.0000001%, they’ll treat the matter as settled for all time). At least my suggestion puts it on a fair basis, with the same rules for each side.

  • @david raw

    If you are interested this is the report of the Citizens Assembly:

    As you will see it is conspicuously short of material and recommendations on constitutional issues! I believe the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour took part in presentations etc and only the Lib Dems stood aloof.

  • Andrew Melmoth 27th May '21 - 6:25pm

    -Simon R.
    There is an asymmetry in your proposal which means unionists could get what they want and frustrate majority opinion indefinitely with a mere 41% of the vote.
    While I have some sympathy with the idea that independence should require a super-majority that boat has long since sailed. The terms of any future referendum cannot now differ materially from the terms in 2014. Otherwise the pro-independence parties will, with a great deal of justification, argue that the referendum is illegitimate and refuse to accept the result.

    Unionists don’t seem to have grasped the scale or nature of the issue. Fifty percent of more of the Scottish population do not consent to the terms under which they are governed. Given the utter disaster that has followed the 2014 vote – Brexit and a corrupt, mendacious, incompetent, anti-democratic, English nationalist government that looks to be power for at least a decade – who can blame them? Obstruction and procedural chicanery will not put the union on a sustainable footing. It will only survive if unionists can make a compelling, positive case for its continuance. I for one will listen carefully when such a case is made but I’m not holding my breath.

  • nvelope2003 27th May '21 - 8:16pm

    Even if there was only a majority of one vote in favour of Scotland becoming independent as long as the SNP can command a majority in their Parliament there will never be another referendum. We are told that no one has ever asked to rejoin Britain when they have left but that may be because their leaders would not want that because they enjoy the perks of office and of course there is propaganda day in and day out saying how awful the British were just as there is in the US with their flag waving from everywhere you could possibly place one to show how unsure they are, even on the New York Stock Exchange. The Johnson Government has even brought this obsession with flag waving into our country which make us look totally inadequate.

  • Mr Envelope is correct in one thing. The Johnson government is totally inadequate.

    But the current inadequacy of both Labour and Lib Dems inevitably feeds a growing feeling in Scotland to want out and have no part in it.

  • I think it is essential that the result of a referendum– any referendum– should have more than a simple majority to be have the result put into effect. I would suggest at least a 20 percent majority. The societal differences that persist in our post-Brexit world are largely the result of a narrow margin of victory by the Brexiteers and the belief that that result was achieved by underhanded means. If a clear 60 percent had voted in favour of Brexit then I do not believe we would have some of the problems we currently have.
    Furthermore, I believe that a 60 percent requirement should be applied to all future referendums. I personally don’t like referendums in principle. Britain is a parliamentary democracy with an unwritten constitution. Historically, this has allowed the voters to effectively vote for — or reverse– constitutional changes at each general election. Referendums block that luxury. They are outside the realms of normal parliamentary debate and the result is very difficult to reverse and has a greater impact on the constitution of the United Kingdom. Therefore, it should require a clearer mandate for change.

  • Tom Arms 29th May ’21 – 6:29pm:
    I think it is essential that the result of a referendum– any referendum– should have more than a simple majority to be have the result put into effect. I would suggest at least a 20 percent majority.

    There have been over forty referendums in and about the EU in various states since the formation of the EEC/EC/EU. In every one the same voting system was used where the result was determined by a simple majority of the votes cast in accordance with the ‘European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission): Code of Good Practice on Referendums’:

    7. Quorum

    It is advisable not to provide for:

    a. a turn-out quorum (threshold, minimum percentage), because it assimilates voters who abstain to those who vote no;

    b. an approval quorum (approval by a minimum percentage of registered voters), since it risks involving a difficult political situation if the draft is adopted by a simple majority lower than the necessary threshold.

    Referendums already have an effective built-in super-majority in the form of Status Quo Bias. This is the disproportionate propensity for people to vote for things to remain the same…

    ‘Status Quo Bias in Decision Making’:

    Most real decisions, unlike those of economics texts, have a status quo alternative — that is, doing nothing or maintaining one’s current or previous decision. A series of decision-making experiments shows that individuals disproportionately stick with the status quo. Data on the selections of health plans and retirement programs by faculty members reveal that the status quo bias is substantial in important real decisions.

    ‘The Status Quo Bias in Direct Democracy: Empirical Results for Switzerland, 1981 – 1999’:

    …mobilisation is much more effective against than in favour of a proposal. This at least is clear evidence of a status quo bias in the Swiss political system. But it is open for discussion whether this bias should be evaluated positively or negatively.

  • Tom Arms 29th May ’21 – 6:29pm:
    The societal differences that persist in our post-Brexit world are largely the result of a narrow margin of victory by the Brexiteers and the belief that that result was achieved by underhanded means.

    Societal differences? Most people who voted remain accepted the result long ago. There’s a small percentage who still don’t. It seems unlikely that the size of the victory would change their behaviour. In any case 1,269,501 votes isn’t a “narrow margin”: 7.9% more people voted to leave than to remain (100*1,269,501/16,141,241). A “narrow margin” would be the 8 votes which took us into the EEC with the second reading of the European Communities Act 1972 voted for by 50.7% of MPs (309 to 301).
    Nor was there anything “underhand” about the leave campaign. The obstacles were heavily stacked against a decision to leave: Status Quo Bias, the authority of the government campaigning to remain, the official household leaflet advocating remain, 45% more spending by the remain campaign, etc..

    ‘European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission): Code of Good Practice on Referendums’:

    3.1. Freedom of voters to form an opinion
    The use of public funds by the authorities for campaigning purposes must be prohibited.

    ‘How the government’s pro-remain leaflet shaped the EU referendum’ [January 2018]:

    My results show that exposure to the government’s leaflet lead to a lower probability of voting to leave the EU.

    ‘The Electoral Commission – Campaign spending at the EU referendum’:

    One hundred and twenty-three organisations and individuals registered with us as campaigners at the referendum. Altogether, the 123 campaigners reported spending £32,642,158 on campaigning at the referendum. Remain: £19,309,588. Leave: £13,332,569.

  • Tom Arms 29th May ’21 – 6:29pm:
    Britain is a parliamentary democracy with an unwritten constitution. Historically, this has allowed the voters to effectively vote for — or reverse– constitutional changes at each general election. Referendums block that luxury. They are outside the realms of normal parliamentary debate and the result is very difficult to reverse and has a greater impact on the constitution of the United Kingdom. Therefore, it should require a clearer mandate for change.

    The 2005 Labour government was elected with just 35.3% of the popular vote on a turnout of 61.3%. Hardly a “clear mandate” for making major constitutional changes. It’s not feasible for the UK to hop in and out of EU membership or for Scotland to join and rejoin the UK every five or ten years. Such decisions transcend the parliamentary timescale and need to be made to last “a generation” – at least 30 years. Constitutional changes of this magnitude should be difficult to make or reverse. Following the precedent set by the 1974 Labour Party Manifesto subsequent referendums have had a General Election mandate. They have also had a simple binary question that stands alone from other issues.

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