How do we address the needs of 45 vs 55 or 39 vs 61 or 48 vs 52? Winner takes all is pretty grim..

by Elias Blum

There is indeed a problem with snap referendums deciding major issues on a knife-edge. Super-majority referendums is one way to go – although it opens up theoretical difficulties about the nature of constituent power. A stricter absolute majority rule (50%+1 of total eligible voters). May in practice have a similar effect without raising these theoretical problems. It will tend to favour the status quo (because, on expected turn-outs, it means a clear majority of those who vote must be in favour), but in principle political equality is maintained.

Another possibility is to hold sequential majoritarian referendums: let’s say, there’s a period of 5 years (one complete electoral cycle) after which a second referendum is held. If that second referendum confirms the first, then action is taken. Again, it does not speak directly to the need for minority protection, but it does prevent snap decisions by thin majorities.

My default is against federalism and consociationism and in favour of splitting into smaller states (within overarching frameworks that provide for international co-operation in matters such as defence and trade). Over-engineered consociationalism doesn’t seem to be a stable solution and it doesn’t lead to good governance outcomes. Federalism incurs all sorts of costs in terms of accountability, transparency, efficiency and good government which are simply avoided in smaller, more homogenous, unitary states. Independence is often the neatest, simplest option.

My preferred solution to ‘minority within minority’ problems, when these are territorially concentrated, is partition. India is better off for not having Pakistan be part of it. Ireland is better off for not having to accommodate the angry and oppositional population of the north. That is a consistent application of the principle of self-determination, and I think it is also self-limiting (in that partition or secession-from-seceding states at some point runs up against limits of viability and practicality, at which point it can go no further- there’s no real prospect for ‘the republic of me and you and I’m no so sure about you’.

Of course, when minorities are not territorially concentrated, it is more difficult. When these minorities are defined by characteristics such as ethnicity, language etc, it may be possible to incorporate forms of group autonomy into an essentially unitary constitution (as in Kosovo).

However, in the Scottish case, there are just differences of opinion, not differences of being. My suspicion in the Scottish case is that if Scotland were independent, unionism would very quickly change from a constitutional position to a foreign policy position. There would be those in Scottish politics who would seek closer relationships with England (and Atlanticism generally), while others would seek closer relationships with Europe. I expect that actual opposition to their being a Scottish state would dissipate within a relatively short time. This may or may not be the case in Catalonia.

Inclusive citizenship rules and scope for dual citizenship, together with reciprocal rights to live and work in the two countries, may also be helpful in smoothing anxieties – this was the case with the independence of Ireland, for example.