A Thought on Referenda

A point that got me thinking recently was that the Brexit vote had been done by referendum over the whole of the UK. And as such, half of the country’s four constituent nations (England, Wales) voted in favor of it, and half (Scotland, Northern Ireland) against.

Consider this for a moment: while England may be a unitary state centered on London, the United Kingdom as a whole isn’t. It’s rather like New England: while Boston may be the social and economic center for the whole of New England, it is the unitary center of just one part of the region–Massachusetts.

Now consider if New England were to vote on a referendum on whether to leave the US and form its own nation, and half–oh, let’s say Massachusetts (god damn, that’s a hard state to spell!), Connecticut, and Rhode Island voted to leave, while the other half–Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire voted to stay. (Oh, and Boston proper voted to stay as well.) If a large enough majority of the southerners decide to leave, then the referendum would pass regardless of what the Mainers would have to say on the subject.

This would obviously exacerbate tensions between Northern and Southern New England, where Maine is actually closer to the Canadian Maritimes than anyplace in the US; Vermont is more culturally linked to the Adirondacks across Lake Champlain; New Hampshire is sort of its own thing; and you’ve got the Québécois community along the northern borders. Most of “New England” as a nation is actually Southern New England, just as much of “Britain” as a nation is actually England.

It isn’t a perfect comparison, of course, but we can start to see some of the failures of the referendum mechanism, and why it must be tempered with other mechanisms for certain types of decision. Or in plain English: why putting Brexit up to a simple referendum was a bloody stupid thing to do.

Questions of sovereignty in the US Constitution are subject to a completely different process than a simple election, or a referendum. We usually see this as the amendment process.

To pass, an amendment needs a 2/3rds majority at the federal level: that is, 2/3rds of the states must be in favor of the amendment. (This obviously creates the condition where any amendment coalition must cross party lines, although a large enough supercoalition–a very rare achievement in its own right–can circumvent that.)

And questions of statehood have to be handled locally. Consider West Virginia: when Virginia voted to secede from the Union and form the Confederation in 1861, its trans-Allegheny region–culturally and economically extensions of Appalachia and the Ohio Valley rather than Virginia’s secessionist Tidewater heart–future West Virginians were like, “fuck that jazz–we’d rather be part of the US than VA.” The state was admitted to the Union in 1863, and never returned back to Virginia after the secession of hostilities.

It should not come as a surprise that a referendum predicated on cracking the order of things…cracks the order of things. The moment you pound a wedge into a fissure, other cracks form, and other cracks turn into fissures themselves. Just as the Tidewater plantationmen failed to consider the interests of trans-Alleghenian coal miners and Ohio Valleyers, an oversight that permanently cost Virginia about a third of its territory, so too the Tory landowners who formed Brexit’s backbone completely failed to consider the interests of Londoners, the Scots, and the Northern Irish (Wales is much more malleable), an oversight whose inevitable consequence is the UK’s breakup should Brexit go through.

(There is a long extraction process ahead, and a strong possibility that a second referendum is part of it. Such a referendum would essentially state: “To leave the EU, the UK agrees to grant Scotland independence and cede Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, and Jersey; in other words, cease to be the “united kingdom” of anything other than England and Wales, etcetera etcetera … Do you still wish to leave?”)

But the fact that Brexit occurred at all is a failure. Questions of sovereignty, like constitution, should never be put to a simple referendum. If the vote is to change the status quo, and all that entails, then at the very least the vote needs to be a convincing majority — 2/3rds of the vote sounds about right. Or, perhaps in the UK’s case, at least three constituent nations, if not all four, would have to agree to leave to begin with.


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