Three referendums that could change Britain as much as losing the empire

In the next five years, the Scottish independence referendum, an in/out EU referendum and a border poll on Northern Ireland could force a rethink of the entire British state.

"Devices for despots and dictators". That was Clement Attlee’s brisk dismissal of referendums and it held sway as the default view in British politics until the 1975 national referendum on continued British membership of the-then European Economic Community.

Since then, the growth in the use of referendums – and in calls to use them – seems inversely proportionate to the natural authority our risk-averse political leaders now wield. The bigger the decision, the less they want to take it.

As a result, there are now three big constitutional referendums lumbering into view over the next five years. Each is significant, but their combined effect could represent the biggest shock to the system since the break–up of the British empire.

The first is the referendum on Scottish independence. Alex Salmond knows that timing here is crucial and a date is so far elusive, although we know it is likely to be in autumn next year. Like a bee’s sting, he has one go at this. If he mistimes the vote and a majority of Scots opt for the status quo, his lifelong project will be over. It is likely, however, that a consolation prize will see extra concessions wrung out of a relieved Westminster in the form of 'devo max'. Don’t ask what that means though; as Scottish Secretary Michael Moore recently pointed out, it’s a "brand without a product".

The second referendum is more speculative. Sinn Fein is agitating for a ‘border poll’ on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status in 2016 – the centenary of the Easter Rising. So far, so predictable; that’s what an Irish republican party is for. But the Good Friday Agreement makes allowance for such votes and what makes this call slightly more intriguing is the reaction of some unionist commentators and politicians. The Democratic Unionist’s Arlene Foster recently said her party might "call [Sinn Fein’s] bluff" on the issue and support a vote. "Sinn Fein are trying to cause instability in Northern Ireland," she claimed.

"If we have the border poll then that instability goes away and, in actual fact, what we have is a very clear validation of the Union and that’s something we’re looking at at the moment."

With the recent census demographics still showing a majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland (albeit tentatively) could this be a smart move by unionists, a last decent chance to show a majority want to remain part of the UK?

The third referendum is, of course, David Cameron’s promise of an in/out EU vote following a renegotiation of Britain's membership. The PM has not set out what powers he wants to repatriate, nor if he would campaign to remain in the EU if his demands were not fully met. By 2017, the date a Conservative-led government would expect to hold the poll, both Northern Ireland and Scotland could conceivably already find themselves outside the UK.

For believers in the constitutional status quo, winning the three votes is not likely to settle grievances in the long-term. Scottish nationalism will continue to be an electorally potent reaction against Westminster rule, while the hope that Northern Ireland’s disputatious existence will be neatly resolved is the supreme elevation of optimism over reality. But winning a referendum on British membership of the EU would be a powerful fillip for pro-Europeans and would help put eurosceptics back in their box, at least for a while.

If all, or any, of these plebiscites were won by the forces of separatism, the shockwaves would force a rethink of the entire British state from its very foundations. In terms of importance, 'losing Ireland'; is the least significant, strategically and economically.

The intriguing question is which of the other two is more important: Scotland going its own way, or the whole of Britain voting to leave the EU? If both came to pass, might the new United Kingdom of England and Wales download the application form for NAFTA membership?

David Cameron and Alex Salmond attend the Drumhead Service in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.