I’ve been fascinated by the early briefings about the EU referendum due by the end of 2017, as promised in the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 general election.
I was interested to learn there’s been research done on the question to be asked. Well, not on the specific question, but on questions asked in referenda. It’s no surprise that crafting a question for a referendum is as much art as science, but recently the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 had a feature that indicated that the length of the question played a larger role than I had previously thought. For every additional word (beyond six words, I believe) there’s a small but measurable effect: it increases the chances of a no vote. Only by one or two percentage points, but in a close result, that could be all that’s needed. There’s also been research done on whether the yes or the no option should be the ‘default’ case, i.e. the ‘no change required’. In other words, should the question be something like:
Should the UK remain in the European Union?
Should the UK leave the European Union?
I’m unsure what the question should be, but my gut suggests that the ‘change’ option should always be the yes option, as it was in the Scottish Independence Referendum, where the question was, as you’ll recall:
Should Scotland be an independent country?
It may – or may not – be a coincidence that the question was exactly six words long. By the foregoing, you’d conclude that I think the question should be the latter of the two options, i.e. should the UK leave the European Union? And you’d be right. But the question and what it should be, and what it turns out to be, are matters for another day. However, if you’ll forgive me, since we don’t yet know the slant of the question, I’ll use in and out as the options going forward, ok?
As I say, the question itself isn’t even on the agenda yet. What is on the agenda, however, is the electorate, or rather what should comprise the electorate. But before I get to that in detail, one other macro-matter regarding electorates has been brought up; it was nothing but expected, and I don’t, can’t, believe it’s been brought up for any reason other than mischief-making. So let’s dispose of it quickly and move on. The Scottish National Party have said that they want the referendum, when it’s held, to have four electorates: the people of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And that each of the four countries would have to vote to leave the European Union before the UK could leave.
This is, of course, utter nonsense. And what’s more, the SNP know it’s nonsense. It’s trite to say that the people of Scotland had their opportunity to vote for independence eight months ago, and they comprehensively rejected it… Trite, but true. It would be absurd for something of this magnitude to be decided on a country-by-country basis. The only even slightly sensible part of this would be if the SNP were laying groundwork for another referendum, which would hardly be in the spirit of the comments made since September 2014, when the SNP said the matter was now settled for a generation.
If, however, the SNP intend another manifesto, then this is how I think they’d do it. They’d enter the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections with a manifesto promising another referendum in 2017, daring Westminster to say no, with 56 of the 59 Scottish MPs being SNP and another SNP Scottish government. Their raising of the ‘four nations, four votes’ issue now can therefore be seen as a way of preparing their arguments to the European Union that if the UK leave the EU, then Scotland should be allowed to take the UK’s place.
But as I say, it’s a ludicrous position. Unless, of course, the SNP have lied to the public, lied to the voters and lied time and time again on camera about their ambitions. Now, what are the chances of that…?
Anyway, back to the electorate the government want; David Cameron has let it be known that the government will propose that the electorate should be the same as that for a general election:
- British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over 18 who are resident in the UK will be eligible to vote.
- So too will UK nationals who have lived overseas for less than 15 years.
However, the government is not intending to extend the franchise to include include 16 and 17-year-olds, unlike the Scottish independence referendum. However, for some strange reason, members of the House of Lords and Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar will also be allowed to vote, although they cannot participate in general elections. This last puzzles me, but I’m sure there’ll be a reason for it; a lousy one, but a reason nonetheless.
It’s easy to understand why Cameron is now floating the idea of the franchise excluding under-18s and also EU citizens living in Britain; it increases the chances of an out vote. Taking the second first, I don’t think anyone would seriously suggest that EU citizens should be able to vote. British nationals haven’t been abole to vote overseas EU referenda, and it’s sensible that they are excluded here. I’m far more interested, however, in the exclusion of 16 and 17 year olds.
I don’t think it’s news, nor a coincidence, that the average UKIP supporter tends to have been born, as Emo Philips puts it, ‘at a more comfortable distance from the apocalypse’. And, similarly, opinion polls have shown that the 16-18 year old age group is, on the whole, more supportive of remaining in the EU than those nearing retirement age, say. One might think from this that Cameron wants to stack teh deck to decrease an in vote. I’m not sure. Not yet, anyway.
See, I don’t think Cameron wants to leave the EU. In fact, I think he desperately wants the UK to remain inside the EU, reformed or otherwise. However, to bolster a fairly weak negotiating position – and to describe it as fairly weak is to greatly overestimate its strength, in my opinion – he needs to show the EU that he’s prepared to let the franchise be as anti-EU as he can. At the moment, anyway. It would not surprise me if, closer to the referendum, 16 and 17 year olds were included, much as Labour have indicated that they would attempt to amend the Referendum Bill to include them. They’re likely to fail in this attempt… in 2015. But it would not surprise me if the government respond to, say a Private Members’ Bill in early 2017 to lower the age allowed to vote in the referendum, by bringing such a measure onboard as a government Bill and taking it forward. The strongest argument, I think, for allowing this is that if there’s any age group that will be affected in the longer term, it’s the almost-adult.
So, the question needs to be sorted out, the franchise needs to be sorted out, and what the government offer to the people will do also. It’s tempting to regard what will be on offer as a straight in or out deal. But of course it won’t be. Or at least it won’t be just that. It’s like suggesting that running across a busy motorway with your eyes closed only involves whether or not you’ll make it to the other side unharmed. I genuinely don’t know the answers to the questions that have already been asked about the consequences of us leaving the EU. I don’t even know half the questions that should be asked. Thing is, I don’t think anyone else knows them right now either. And that’s even assuming that the government could get the bill through parliament unamended, no guarantee with a majority so thin, a dose of flu doing the rounds would annihilate it.
Fasten your seatbelts, people. This is going to be a bumpy ride.