By Richard Forbes.
Featured Image via Niklas Halle’n.

As Britain waits anxiously for a conclusion to the EU referendum, a growing chorus has emerged bemoaning the referendum itself. Critics will note the referendum was a hasty campaign promise from Prime Minister David Cameron to put a ‘Brexit’ to a public vote – some election pork to satisfy the growing demand within his own party’s ranks for a separation from Brussels – a way, that is, to encourage conservative voters to stay in the big tent rather than support the boorish purple beer tent down the street, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the main anti-EU protest vehicle.

This nightmare never needed to happen, the critics lament. And yet it has…

On and on, the referendum has continued – a rolling tumbleweed of emotional turmoil – bitterly dividing constituencies, families, and most predominantly, generations: millennials, who more often than not support a future with Britain remaining in the EU, stand in stark contrast to the boomers driving the “leave” campaign. The pain and tragedy of the EU referendum, as avoidable as it was, is yet another example of a referendum that didn’t need to happen but did; a referendum that didn’t need to divide a country, but has; a referendum that didn’t need to leave its mark, its scar – whatever the result – on the public memory for decades to come, but will.

A vigil for Labour MP Jo Cox, who died after being shot and stabbed in the street during the referendum campaign last week.

Instead of taking note, however, Canada’s Conservatives have ramped up their calls for an electoral reform referendum as of late – wasting hours of Question Period of their own precious media spotlight to bat questions at Democratic Institutions minister Maryam Monsef with nothing to show for it except some untelevised soundbites and a few collective shrugs across the country.

The needlessness of Britain’s EU referendum, make no mistake, is not some rare exception, no – rather, it is the very nature of referendums in representative democracies that referendums like the ones the Tories are proposing, populist sideshows no less, are afterthoughts and products of cheap politics. Cameron and Ambrose’s Tories respectively, neither boasting a satisfying plan of their own for British independence nor democratic reform, have clung desperately instead to the empty promise of a referendum.

Canada’s history has some clear demonstrations of that gamesmanship: referendums as ill-advised campaign promises, referendums to kill campaign promises – their results, ignored or dismissed. But if that bad record with referendums and plebiscites, mad as they are, isn’t clear enough on their merit, the EU referendum is a perfect demonstration of everything wrong with referendums and why Canada ought to be far more reluctant to jump into a referendum of its own, especially not when it’s unnecessary to develop a new electoral system outside of the usual, far more civil channels of democratic and political reform: public consultations, committee debates and the parliamentary process.

Project Fear

The EU referendum has seen both sides at times present less than honourable cases. The “remain” side, rather than actually defending the EU, has largely been content for the past few months now in making its case on Brexit by warning people of the possibility of bus and air fares rising and Britons losing access to medicare – campaigning on the fears of Britons (and the panic of antsy investors) that a Brexit would spell economic doom for Britain. Supporters of the “leave” side have in turn responded to these fears with their own lurid web of delusions: chief among them is the fantasy of an independent Britain, which, rather than being crippled in unemployment and hemorrhaging its global influence, holds a steady place in the world as a political and economic superpower. Not to be out done, the “leave” side has also doubled down on what can only be called a xenophobic hate campaign, exploiting the current migrant crisis. A vote to “leave” the EU, these Brexiters would have you believe, is a vote for tighter immigration control.

For those close to the 1995 Quebec Sovereignty Referendum, the themes of the referendum must seem all too familiar: hate and fear, fear and hate. A reluctant pro-federalist side content with riding out the course of the vote, dropping ominous seeds of doubt and laying the fear-mongering on thick; a pro-nationalist side promising an economic and political utopia, embraced by investors, that would tighten immigration. The common denominator of these referendums is demagoguery, the source of its hate and fear – the hope of which is to scare and divide low information voters.

A referendum, rather than being a policy debate, becomes an emotional contest where facts are elastic and fears are currency.

While the subject of electoral reform does instill deep emotions in some, it largely bores the pants off Canadians – but we shouldn’t assume, however, that an electoral reform referendum wouldn’t follow the same pattern as other referendums.

In 2007 – too young to vote, but old enough to advise my parents how to vote, I followed the Ontario MMP referendum closely, naively expecting a battle of ideas, a respectful exchange of views. What I witnessed instead was Rick Mercer joking to millions of Canadians  that the Taliban could be elected under MMP. Proportional representation, Mercer explains, is effectively a scheme designed by “losers” to elect “wingnuts” (“or rather, different wingnuts,” Mercer adds.) That misinformation, funny as it was, continued to be repeated throughout the referendum, even making its way onto the evening news cycle – despite the fact that year no minor party besides the Green Party received more than 1% of the popular vote in Ontario!

National Unity

The pro-Remain camp has been stressing all along the EU referendum has the potential to be a disaster for the United Kingdom’s unity. For example, Scotland is likely to be a pro-EU stronghold if polls are to be believed, and since Britain’s membership in the EU was one of the main reasons why Scottish voters were swayed during the Scottish Independence referendum to vote “No,” the subject of Britain’s membership in the EU distinctly and unavoidably dovetails with Scottish nationalism. Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish first minister, has already announced that if a Brexit were pursued with Scotland having rejected the move, a second Scottish Independence referendum would be “more likely than not” and “definitely on the table.”

Northern Ireland too, while very unlikely to pursue an independence referendum, finds itself in a uniquely difficult situation with regards to Brexit. The province is the only section of the United Kingdom landlocked with a EU Member State, which means in the event of a Brexit, Northern Ireland’s relatively open border with Ireland could become more closed and more closely guarded – which many would see as a step backwards for the peace process in Northern Ireland but also a significant threat to trade within the Emerald Isle. Polls suggest that the “remain” vote should hold in Northern Ireland especially among Catholics, although the Unionists, the leading political party in Northern Ireland, are venomously supporting the “leave” camp as a “pro-British” initiative.

A mural marks unionist territory in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The city is situated on the border between the two countries. (Photo: Charles McQuillian, Getty Images.)

It is England however, not Scotland, nor Northern Ireland, or Wales, that will be the predominant force in the EU referendum. With over 85% of the United Kingdom’s population, England is a population behemoth that will command the majority of votes cast in the referendum – and there in lies a major problem with mixing the majoritarian politics of referendums with the quasi-federalism of the United Kingdom and Canada. Such a vote by “the people” (which is a cute euphemism for “England” or “Ontario and Quebec”), lazily, if not intentionally, disrupts the careful balance of powers, ignoring the unique situations and contexts of areas whose voices get vastly outnumbered.

It may not be easily apparent how something like a proposed electoral reform referendum in Canada could spark a national unity crisis, but I would suggest there are reasons to suspect it could. The tragic irony of an electoral reform referendum, of course, is the western provinces clamoring the most for a referendum will be badly outnumbered in a popular national vote by Quebec and Ontario. Thus, it’s important to keep in mind not only how much support a potential referendum could have, but where it would have it. Trudeau, without a resounding pan-Canadian victory, would likely be politically crippled by a referendum – unable to advance electoral reform no matter the result.

You see, a whole slew of polls from Abacus Data are showing strong support across Canada for electoral reform. Trudeau would, if polls are to be believed, be able to surpass a majority threshold on electoral reform and a win a referendum.

But is winning the referendum really enough to win a referendum?

We can imagine a referendum result along the lines of the current polling: Ontario remaining skeptical, the west advancing the status quo, a fervently pro-reform Quebec and (less so) BC tipping the balance in the Liberals’ favour.

But despite winning the referendum, Trudeau would still have to make the difficult decision of whether to push forward with electoral reform when parts of the west will claim he is enacting electoral changes – without the west’s clear support – to deepen seats for the Liberals in the west. Worse still, whether he pushes forward or not, populist forces in either Quebec or the Prairies would probably cry foul at the federal government and accuse each another of colluding with the federal government to enact a sinister anti-Quebec or anti-Prairie agenda – the sorts of nationally-divisive Mulroney-era politics Canada has tried to abandon over the years.

For similar reasons, Chantal Hébert, quite rightly points out in the Toronto Star that the Prime Minister might have to tighten the referendum’s thresholds to require majorities in all of the country’s provinces (which is a tighter threshold than even the flaming, high-wire circus act Canada calls its amending formula.) She also suggests, even more politically explosive for the Liberals, a modern national referendum, even on something as mundane as electoral reform would have to explain away a 50+1% threshold antithetical to Ottawa’s Post-1995 position on “clear majorities -” or otherwise confront Quebec’s longstanding criticism to the Clarity Act.


Another option for Trudeau to avoid a national crisis over election reform however is to fail spectacularly everywhere across Canada and unite the country, against all odds, in hating a project. This nightmare scenario was the fate of the now infamous Charlottetown Accord in 1992. Indeed, it’s doubtful many Canadians can even remember nowadays what the Charlottetown Accord was proposing, or why, other than to say it was the pet project of a Prime Minister they despised. After a seemingly endless decade of constitutional pow-wows, the Canadian public, tired of the whole mess and desperate to make it stop, voted against their premiers, their parties, their leader, their very establishment, to make it abundantly clear a constitutional package, whether they knew what it entailed or not, would be shamed, burnt, and buried forever – resurrected only in brief passing to lecture the innocent and naive against amending our constitution.

Prime Minister David Cameron addresses supporters. (Photo: Stefan Rousseau.)

Referendums, for better, but mostly for worse, centre around the leaders at the helm rather than the propositions involved. A referendum can become a referendum on a nation’s leadership and a country’s elite. Which places David Cameron in a terrible position, albeit of his own making, as he’s forced to lead a vitally important campaign to save Britain from a Brexit, while also suffering from the great disadvantage of being David Cameron: one of the most irredeemable and catastrophically unpopular, unrelatable, posh, and privileged derrières to reside in Downing Street.

A vote to “leave” could end the Prime Minister’s career – and catapult Boris Johnson, whose own father, brother and sister have all campaigned against Boris on Brexit, into the country’s top job. Cameron however can take some comfort in the fact that no matter the result, the EU referendum has finally distracted the British press from printing more reports about him masturbating with a dead pig.

Late in the campaign we’ve seen rising stars like London mayor Sadiq Khan fill the leadership void, adding some much needed punch to the “remain” camp’s position, but with the prediction markets remaining tight and the polls tighter, some are wondering whether the pro-EU side waited too long to pivot and make its final push. The answer to those concerns will lie in the referendum’s outcome.

The official results, as they finally trickle in, will mark a new emotional chapter for Britain but the sad truth is the referendum, the schism it’s created and will leave behind, will probably not end, not really, for some time. Rarely are results decisive enough in battles like these to convince one side that they truly have lost. Referendums beget more referendums; more generations and more people fighting new generations and new people to define their nation once and for all, but never definitively.

One commentator went as far as to pray this weekend that his country never contemplates another referendum ever again, feelings I share too.



Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

Follow him on Twitter at @richardjforbes.


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