Today’s referendum has been described by many as historic, but of course it follows the 2014 ‘historic’ independence referendum, so what have we learnt about referendums in the UK on major constitutional issues and what similarities are there?
Certainly for many people in Scotland the EU referendum has felt like a version of Groundhog Day as many of the same political actors, arguments and issues were once again traipsed out. It has also felt comparatively lacklustre in comparison, partly due to the higher percentage of Scots who were always going to vote Remain and also because they came late to the referendum because of domestic elections.
Lies, damned lies and statistics have played a significant role in both referendums. Much controversy was caused in both campaigns when the Treasury produced reports highlighting the cost of voting against the status quo. And while the Brexit campaign was criticised for its sums that could be redeployed on domestic issues, such as the NHS, so too the SNP were criticised about their oil figures. What has become apparent is that predicting the impact of these referendums is at best a very inaccurate science.
In Scotland though, there has not been the grassroots campaigning that we saw in the independence referendum. Partly this is just a matter of timing – it takes time to establish groups on the ground and the parliamentary elections took up much of the time it would take to prepare such a campaign. In addition, the EU debate has probably not sparked as much passion as the independence debate. It has nevertheless, given the EU debate a decidedly less engaging feel.
Televised debates have certainly played a role in the EU debate, with some very high profile encounters. However, just as with the Scottish independence referendum, they have generated more heat than light. It was also interesting to see the same figures performing well in these televised debates – Sturgeon and, in particular, Ruth Davidson, won additional plaudits for their direct and combative styles. The Remain camp has utilised their skills and experience in fighting referendums. And even Gordon Brown has again made asimilarly timed intervention.
And what of social media? Just like the Scottish independence referendum, social media has played an important role in the EU referendum, with particular peaks around key milestone dates. It is therefore unsurprising on Election Day that the referendum is trending on Twitter and is dominating social media channels.However, social media platforms remain an echo chamber and the users most willing to shout the loudest skew the true picture in the country.
On a more tactical note, the Unionist campaign was criticised in the Scottish referendum for their negative campaigning in the so-called ‘project fear.’ The same accusation has been launched against the Remain campaign this time and it does seem that the UK Government has become reliant on the fear technique (consciously or otherwise) to make their case. Equally though the Leave campaign has been sharply criticised for the tone of their campaign. Just as with the Scottish referendum, neither campaign will emerge from this smelling of roses.
The polls have also acted similarly, with a gradual narrowing over the short campaign and scares for the Remain camp in the final 10 days. Like the Scottish referendum, this has again seem to have acted as a rallying call to get behind the status quo and Remain.
A mark of difference between the two has been the division between the elite and the rest. Whilst businesses were less likely to publicise their view during the independence referendum, there has been a similar separation (rhetorical or otherwise) between two camps –the vested interests of the elite for the status quo, versus the rest who sought change based on unfairness and a sense of powerlessness. The EU referendum has seen a much more pronounced version of this, with Leave campaigners painting ‘experts’ as elites, out of touch with the man on the street.
Both referendums have engaged the population and have followed remarkably similar paths. However, a major point of difference could be the turnout. The Scottish referendum, regardless of your views, certainly attracted a great turnout. Will the EU referendum attract anything like the same numbers?