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Analysis: The electoral calculus

Video in which Anthony Salamone interviews Prof Nicola McEwen (The University of Edinburgh) on the politics behind the UK's EU referendum.
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I’m Nicola McEwen. I’m Professor of Territorial Politics at the University of Edinburgh and Associate Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change. So, Nicola, what role did the UK’s 2015 General Election play in the decision to hold an EU referendum? Well, the Conservative Party had a commitment in its manifesto to hold a referendum, an in/out referendum, and they had made it clear in that campaign that that would be a condition of any government that they led. So, they had expected to have to form another coalition, or at least lead as a minority, so they were drawing a red line under that issue as a non-negotiable feature of any government that they would lead. So, in that sense, it was quite important.
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But, in another sense, it wasn’t really a dominant campaign theme. It wasn’t an issue that fundamentally divided the parties in the campaign. The campaign was much more dominated by the issues of the economy, of competence to govern and, crucially, of immigration. And immigration, indirectly, has become one of the key features, the key issues of contention in this referendum campaign. What was the response from the other parties, beyond the Conservatives, to the idea about holding an EU referendum? Not a great one, not enthusiastic one, but nor a huge one in any sense. This is very much an issue that has emerged from the Conservative Party.
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It’s seen as an issue that internally divides the Conservative Party, and I suspect the Prime Minister thought that holding a referendum might be one way to address and perhaps remove the issue that has divided his party for many, many years, long before he became Prime Minister. So, it’s been a key issue for the Conservatives, but it’s not that the other parties are necessarily wholly united on it. Some are, some less so. But it’s just not ‘their’ issue. It’s not the issue that drives and motivates as some of the members of those parties, in the same way that it is the dominant issue for many people within the Conservative Party. UK-wide referendums are not particularly common.
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Why did David Cameron choose a referendum to treat the question of the Britain’s EU membership? Well, I would say that UK-wide referendums, and referendums in general in the UK, are becoming more common. There have already been eleven in the UK. This will be the twelfth one. And that dates back only to 1973. So they are becoming a more prominent feature of UK politics. Sometimes, referendums are used to try and stall a decision, or to try and use it to resolve a problem. But, oftentimes, and this is becoming increasingly important, I think, in recent years - referendums are seen as a legitimating device, a way to ensure that major constitutional change is supported by popular consent expressed directly through a referendum.
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Will the referendum settle divisions within political parties - particularly within the Conservative Party - on the issue of Europe? I think there are many lessons that we can learn if we look back to the last referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. One of those lessons is that a referendum is extremely unlikely to settle an issue, particularly when it exposes the divisions within society, as well as the divisions within any particular political party. In this referendum, because it’s so clearly and closely contested, because, whatever side wins, it looks like they won’t win by very much, if the opinion polls are accurate, is very unlikely to settle the issue, either way, in fact.
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This issue will remain an issue for the Conservative Party in the years ahead, and indeed for the country as a whole. To what extent did the UK’s ongoing constitutional debates influence the decision to have an EU referendum? I think the UK’s constitutional debates had a minimal role to play in this broader referendum debate, other than the fact to set the standard that constitutional change is now deemed, almost everywhere, to require a referendum. Most of the referendums that the UK has held have been about devolution. They’ve been in certain parts of the UK not all, but for the most part. So, constitutional change has come to be associated with the holding of a referendum.
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So, that’s the indirect influence that I think they have had. But this really is something that has emerged from within the Conservative Party. The results of it, however, could have implications for the constitutional politics across the UK, particularly if the result produces a majority to leave, and there will undoubtedly be geographic disparities in the consent for the UK leaving the EU. But even if it’s a result that produces a narrow majority for remain, and it seems that certain parts of the UK may have been decisive in producing that kind of outcome.
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So, I don’t think the constitutional debates within Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been instrumental in creating this referendum, but the results of this referendum may well prove significant for the constitutional future of the UK as a whole.
Anthony Salamone and Nicola McEwen, Professor of Territorial Politics at the University of Edinburgh, discuss the politics behind the UK’s EU referendum.
(Videographer: Tim Askew)
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Towards Brexit? The UK's EU Referendum

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