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
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.