Glen Newey on the Referendum
A.J.P. Taylor memorably remarks in The Course of German History, written to mark the centenary of the failed 1848-49 revolution, that with the Frankfurt Parliament, ‘German history reached its turning-point, and failed to turn’. A similar non-moment in the UK’s constitutional history now lies before us, in the form of the alternative vote referendum on the voting system.
The quality of the AV ‘debate’ has been staggeringly low. Some contentions, particularly on the ‘No’ side, have been risible, such as its ‘dead babies’ case against electoral change. Those of their opponents have been little better: for example, that in some elections AV would have given the result they wanted, whereas the (misnamed; see the excellent discussion by Tim Gowers) ‘first past the post’ system wouldn’t. It’s hard not to regret that there has to be a winner.
Beyond the plastic zoo of politicos and celebs, the standard of argument has not been much better. It’s often assumed that the popular will is somehow out there, and that the task is to design a suitable butterfly net in which to catch it. The point is not just that people often tweak the way they vote to fit the system; there are different formal and political criteria for aggregating individual votes. So AV has been charged, correctly, with breaching formal criteria like monotonicity – which says that a candidate should not be disadvantaged by being promoted on some ballots, if the other rankings are held constant. ‘First past the post’ is monotonic, but so are other methods, such as the Borda count. Failure of monotonicity is mildly counterintuitive. But there is still a debate to be had about how heavily these factors weigh against such political desiderata as representativeness and ‘strong government’. We certainly haven’t had it over the past few weeks.
The lasting fall-out from the 5 May elections will be in Scotland, where the SNP has romped home: the Nationalists may well get the 65 seats they need for an overall majority at Holyrood. Unlike in Wales, where it is about to return to power, the Labour Party in Scotland has been hobbled by its longstanding reputation for cronyism in local government and having its haggis shot by Ed Miliband, who suggested on a brief campaign stopover that the Scottish parliamentary elections were a prelude to the Big One in Westminster in 2015. Meanwhile, the Nats’ triumph testifies to the political uses of vacuity. On its website the SNP styles itself ‘Scotland’s moderate left-of-centre pro-independence party led by Alex Salmond’. At least one element of that description is beyond dispute. On the party’s manifesto site, even the saltire has been ousted by a shot of Salmond’s jowls. He’s easily edged it over rival party bosses Tavish Scott and Iain Gray, who muster all the charm and visibility of an underground car park.
Since 2007 Shrek has run his minority administration with a rubberoid elasticity of principle. He’s made noises against Trident in the knowledge that this gratifies the nationalist constituency but lies beyond the executive’s devolved powers. Meanwhile, he’s cosied up to Donald Trump and presided over regressive fiscal policies and public spending cuts that have been voted through Holyrood each year with the help of Annabel Goldie’s Scottish Tories. You have to search hard on the SNP manifesto site to find any mention even of independence, though they go large on wind farms, presumably in case they need Green support in a coalition. The Tories are more natural allies. Salmond funked the independence referendum promised in the last election, and it’s not mentioned in the current manifesto. But if he has a majority in the new parliament, he can hardly not put it to the vote. The Tories are of course officially unionist, but the chance to offload the regular 58-odd non-Conservative MPs returned by Scotland at each UK general election must be tempting. In 1848-49 the story of reform’s failure, as Engels noted, was the impressive co-ordination of pan-German reaction to stifle revolt. In this year’s farcical repeat, the role of Bismarck will be played by the genial green man with trumpet ears.