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
Show Hide image

The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

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