Whatever happens in the Scottish Parliament elections on May 6, Westminster should apply new thinking to all future referendums in the United Kingdom. Central to this new thinking should be the principle of ‘informed consent’. Electorates should be as well informed as possible about the likely consequences of their vote.
The Australian constitution (a British Act of Parliament of 1900) supplies the model. It requires that the constitution may only be modified by a referendum on a detailed proposal which has already been agreed by the Australian parliament. Thus in the 1999 Australian referendum on the monarchy, the voters did not vote on the bare principle of monarchy, leaving the politicians to sort out the details afterwards. They voted on, and rejected, the specific proposal to replace the Queen with a president elected for a fixed term by parliament.
Most of the 13 referendums in the UK since 1973 have more or less conformed with this principle. The rot set in with Tony Blair’s first referendums, in 1997, on the principle of devolution in Scotland and Wales, but with no details. On the other hand, the question in the Northern Ireland referendum in 1998 referred specifically to ‘Command Paper 3883’. And the first of David Cameron’s referendums, on the UK electoral system (2011) similarly referred specifically to ‘the alternative vote system’.
General elections in the UK are fought on the basis of competing party manifestoes which present coherent and costed programmes upon which the electorate can cast an informed vote. In a referendum fought without any equivalent arrangement the scope for misrepresentation, exaggeration, and evasion is greatly expanded. A case in point is the way in which the 2014 Scottish referendum on the principle (but not the details) of secession was punctuated by the apparently sudden realisation of the electorate that a post-independence currency union with England, as promised by the SNP, would not in fact be available.
How could the principle of ‘informed consent’ be applied in the case of any future referendums on secession from the UK – whether in Scotland, or in Northern Ireland, or indeed in Wales?
Westminster should legislate that such a referendum may only be held after the conclusion of an agreement on the detailed consequences of secession, approved by the UK Parliament and the relevant parliament or assembly (and in the case of Northern Ireland, also of the Irish parliament).
It should be legislated that such an agreement would both cover the immediate consequences of secession and lay out a framework for future relations with the rest of the UK. The withdrawal agreement should deal with the division of UK assets and liabilities between the rUK and the seceding state. For instance: accrued contributions to the UK National Insurance Fund should pass to the new state, which would thereafter assume exclusive responsibility for pensions and social security benefits.
By the same token, the liability constituted by its due share of the UK national debt would also have to be agreed – contrary to the supposition of the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission (2018) that at secession Scotland would inherit no public debt obligations from the UK. The relevant electorate would thus be in a position at the referendum to agree or disagree with the taking on of massive net public debt obligations by the new state.
The agreement on future relations would similarly outline the consequences of secession for financial, monetary, commercial, and economic relations with the rUK. Financial transfers from the UK budget would obviously cease at the point of secession: currently these amount to some £15 billion. Support from the Bank of England for the local currency in the seceding state would also be terminated, probably with serious consequences for mortgage-holders on which they would be able to reflect before they cast their vote. If future membership of the UK single market and customs union were desired, the UK might accede to this, on the basis of agreed conditions. The clarification of these important matters prior to any referendum would greatly assist the electorate in making its decision.
A Referendums Act of the UK Parliament making provision along these lines for ‘informed consent’ would also provide a vehicle for the settlement of various questions concerning the composition of the relevant electorate. Only citizens of the UK and the Commonwealth (and perhaps also locally resident Irish citizens) should be able to vote. The voters must be adult. Those who would be entitled by right of birth to citizenship of the new state but who are resident elsewhere in the UK should have the right to vote. In a decision of such importance the support of a majority of the whole electorate (rather than a mere majority of those voting) should be required.
But the central purpose of such legislation should, above all, be to ensure that before any referendum is held, the relevant parties should have agreed upon its consequences and taken full responsibility for them, and the relevant electors should have been put in a position to be as fully informed as possible concerning those consequences before they take the plunge.
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