Was the Falklands referendum the most unanimous election ever?

Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein and the Assads have all flirted with the 99 per cent electoral margin.

A 99 per cent level of support in a referendum would normally cause scepticism. Yet the 99.74 per cent result in favour of Britain in the Falkland Islands sovereignty referendum this month was welcomed by the British Prime Minister David Cameron who said “the Falkland Islanders have spoken so clearly about their future”. You can say he had good reason - this is probably the most overwhelming result in any free and fair referendum.

Cynicism about overwhelming votes is reflected in Clement Attlee’s quote “the referendum is a device of dictators and demagogues”, which is borne out by the frequent recourse of totalitarian regimes to plebiscites. Many such votes have stretched credulity by recording support for the regime in question in excess of 99 per cent. Perhaps most notable is the Nazi use of referendums. Probably influenced by the free 1935 vote in the Saarland, in which the German Saarlanders voted overwhelmingly to rejoin Germany, a vote across the whole country was held in 1936 to endorse the remilitarisation of the Rhineland. With the two airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg touring up and down the country there was 100 per cent support. However, the ballot paper did not include an option to vote against, so this victory is reduced to only 98.80 per cent if you count as opponents the half a million brave people who cast blank ballots. It would be ironic to suggest that it was in the interests of fairness that the Nazis included the "No"  option on the Austrian Anschluss referendum ballot paper in 1938. The font and the box was much smaller in case anyone was confused about how they should vote. Nevertheless, the "Yes" vote only received 99.60 per cent support, 12,000 people voted against and almost 6,000 spoilt their papers. Nor was this the only way in which dissent was shown – striker Matthias Sindelar famously scored a winning goal for Austria in the supposedly friendly Anschluss football match against the German national side. Unsurprisingly he was mysteriously found dead shortly afterwards.

The Middle East has seen a number of votes with over 99 per cent support. During the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini consolidated his power with a referendum on the adoption of his Islamic constitution, recording support of 99.31 per cent. Only 140,000 voters opposed the move, though, again, blank and spoilt papers, which amounted for another 150,000, were probably another way in which you could show dissent.

Not to be outdone Saddam Hussein in Iraq held a couple of referendums on his rule. In 1995 he made the mistake of letting the world see that not everyone supported his rule when just over 3,000 people voted against him, leaving him with only 99.89 per cent support. At the end of the seven-year term that this poll confirmed Saddam stood for re-election in 2002. As a display of his indefegatability in his show-down with America, during the run-up to the tragedy of the Iraq War, this time he got the support of all 11 million voters. At the time the BBC reported that amongst ballot boxes plastered with posters of Saddam Hussein voters sang patriotic songs and some even marked their approval in their own blood.

The votes on Saddam Hussein’s rule were not strictly speaking referendums but single-candidate presidential elections – an idea common across many totalitarian regimes. In Eastern Europe they reportedly followed the maxim, attributed to Stalin, that “those who cast the votes decide nothing, those who count the votes decide everything”. Rather than his mentor, perhaps Saddam was copying his fellow Baathists in Syria. Hafez al-Assad was elected with over 99 per cent support in five Presidential elections from 1971 to 1999. His son, Basheer, got the same level of support when he succeeded to the presidency in 2000. However, in the last presidential vote in 2007, before the outbreak of the current civil war, Basheer al-Assad’s support fell to 97.62 per cent. This was still impressive enough, though, for the Interior Minister to state “this great consensus shows the political maturity of Syria and the brilliance of our democracy”.

So the Falkland Islands would seem to stand as the only example of near national unanimity in a free and fair vote – apart from another example, and a bit closer to home. The 1973 Border Poll in Northern Ireland received 98.9 per cent support for remaining in the UK. A brainwave of the Heath government, following the abolition of the Stormont Parliament, the vote was conducted in a proper way. However, the circumstances of the Troubles and a widespread boycott called by nationalist parties led to turnout of only 58.66 per cent and no resolution until the Good Friday Agreement over a quarter of a century later (which was endorsed in a referendum with 71.1 per cent support and a turnout of over 80 per cent). Few would venture to say that the Border Poll accurately reflected the views of the Northern Irish people. The Falkland Islanders are, therefore, surely unique?

Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Photograph: Getty Images
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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.