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 and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Of course we could do more to stop terrorism – if we’re willing to live in a police state

 The only way to stop this sort of human monster completely is to become like them.

What are we prepared to sacrifice to keep children safe? On Monday night at Manchester arena, 22 people were senselessly slaughtered. Many of them were young girls, pouring out of a pop concert, giddy with excitement. Hours before the killer was identified or Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the attack, the political conversation had already turned to vengeance, and respected public thinkers were calling, in the name of those dead children, for further crackdowns on immigrants and perceived outsiders, for troops on the streets, for "internment camps'" with straight faces and the sincere implication that anyone who disagrees is weak-willed and possibly a terrorist sympathiser. A lot of little girls have been killed. What good are tolerance and human rights today?

Nobody can be expected to be instantly rational when dozens of kids have just been maimed and murdered. There are, however, individuals who seem more than prepared to exploit the occasion to further their own agendas. Yet again, we are told that the state is failing in its duty to protect "our" children, that pansy liberals won't let us raise the "obvious solutions" to this problem. Nobody can quite bring themselves to articulate exactly what those "obvious solutions" might be, hedging the issue instead with grave looks, raised eyebrows and stern allusions to the consequences of political correctness. The consensus is that we are living in a nation so paralysed by hand-flapping progressive talk-talkery that ordinary, right-thinking folks aren’t allowed to say what’s really on their minds. 

The truth is that nobody’s stopping anyone from saying what they think about any of this, and if you don’t believe me, take a brisk scroll through Twitter this afternoon, and keep some eyeball bleach on hand. In fact, the reason a lot of people are stopping short of saying what they think ought to be done is that they know full well that what they think ought to be done is unacceptable and shameful in any sane society. So shameful, indeed, that it takes a professional shit-stirrer to speak it aloud. 

Enter Katie Hopkins. It’s not just pro-trolls like her who have called for a "final solution" following the Manchester Arena bombing. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson declared that we should start putting "thousands" of people in "internment camps" in the name of protecting children. Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill echoed the tone, blaming "multiculturalism" for mass murder, and implying that anyone advocating calm and tolerance in the face of terrorism does not feel sufficiently angry about the murder of 22 of their fellow citizens. “It is becoming clear,” insists O'Neill, “that the top-down promotion of a hollow ‘togetherness’ in response to terrorism is about cultivating passivity.”

In fact, Britain is far from passive in the face of extremist violence. Britain already has one of the most robust counter-terrorism programs on the planet. We are among the most surveilled societies in the Western world. We have a counter-extremism program, Prevent, that places a duty in schools, universities and other public bodies to report any suspected radical or "extremist" activity, and is so exacting that it has been condemned by experts and educators across the board as an infringement of the right to free speech and thought. The authorities responsible for heading off and hunting down these psychopaths and all who sail with them are hardly slacking on the job. The problem is that there's really no way to up the game from here without going full police state. The pundits condemning the relevant institutions as shirkers today know this full well, which is why a police state is exactly what they’re asking for, with the inference that anyone who disagrees is awfully relaxed about the violent death of young girls and their parents.

So let’s not mince words. Let's be absolutely clear what’s at stake here. Let us acknowledge that yes, we could do more to stop this, if we wanted. And then let's think about whether that's really, actually, what we want.

Yes, we could do more. We could allow the state to round up and lock away anyone even remotely suspected of violent, extremist tendencies; anyone who has ever accessed a suspicious website or attended a dubious lecture. We'd have to lock those people up for a very long time, of course, because if there's one thing that nudges people from a passing interest in anti-state violence into full on fanaticism, it's active state oppression. We could ban anyone who's ever been in any way associated with extremist ideology from entering the country, including those who are fleeing violence themselves. We could institute total surveillance of everyone’s online activity. We could build those internment camps. They’d be expensive, so it’s only fair that potential degenerates and their associates be obliged to work for their keep. Of course, you wouldn't want those internment camps spread out - you'd want the inmates concentrated in one place. What could we call such camps? I’m sure we’ll think of a name.

If we did all that, and more, then yes, there's a chance that we could stop atrocities like this from happening again. Even then, there's no guarantee. The most exacting neo-stasi infrastructure can’t always stop the rogue loner with a breadknife and a brain boiling with arcane violence. It would, however, significantly lower the odds.

The question is not whether it can be done. Of course it can be done. Paranoid, bloodless, hyper-vigilant police states have been instituted in European nations before, and if any country on earth has the infrastructure to make it work right now, it's Britain, a small island with an extensive surveillance architecture, a mostly urban population, a conservative government currently seeking re-election on a tough-love platform, and no pesky constitutional rights to free speech. We can do it if we want to. Sure we can. The question is whether we should. The question is whether it's worth it. Is it worth it, to prevent the loss of one more young life, the devastation of one more family?

Don’t answer that right now. Give it a few days, at least, because right now it makes a great deal of emotional sense to say yes, yes, it’s worth it. Anything to stop something like this happening again. To save one child. To keep hundreds more from being traumatised for life just because they went to a pop concert with their friends. I suspect that today, tucked away in the collective psyche of a great many otherwise tolerant and decent people, is a furious, frightened voice yelling - sure, let’s do it. Let’s shut the borders and build the camps. It might not be nice, it might not even be right, but these evil dickheads are killing kids, so frankly, fuck the Geneva convention.

That furious, frightened instinct needs to be named so we can deal with it like adults. The anger and the fear here are real and legitimate, even though a great many bad actors are exploiting them to further racist, xenophobic agendas. It’s alright to be frightened and furious. It’s not alright to let those emotions dictate public policy. Today, with the faces of murdered little girls all over the news, is not a day to ask anyone what they’re prepared to sacrifice to make sure this never happens again.

Because the truth is that the only way to stop this sort of human monster is to become like them. The only way to be sure that no swivel-eyed extremist who hates life, and liberty and raw youthful joy so much that he's prepared to blow up a pop concert full of teenagers can never do that again is to acquiesce to the sort of state apparatus that is anathema to joy and liberty and life, the sort of state apparatus that no child should grow up with.

This is why platitudes about 'unity', about 'not letting hate win', about keeping it together and trying not to let our worst instincts take over, are not, in fact, platitudes at all. They are not banal. They are not hollow. It takes enormous strength of character, at a time like this,  not to give in to fear and rage and the rationale of revenge. The people of Manchester are showing that strength in the wake of one of the most horrific mass murders this tense and divided nation has ever seen. We owe it to them, to the victims of this attack, and to their families not to sully their memories by surrendering to the logic of intolerance.

It is at moments like this when a community proves its character.  It is at times like this that it is more, not less essential to refuse racist and fascist ideas. Tolerance is not passivity. Kindness is not weakness. It is not cowardly to stay with our anger and our grief and refuse to let those emotions sway our commitment to human dignity, or to look dreadful vengeance in the face and refuse it. It is strength. It is strength more profound and more human than fundamentalists of any faction can comprehend, and if we hang on to that strength, they will never, ever win. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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