Sunil looks at close referendum outcomes
“It has been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” – those were the immortal words of one Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington) in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.
I keep seeing comments on PB.com, and the wider MSM, about the EU Referendum being a close result, with the implication that it was the closest referendum result in human history, and that because it was such a narrow win for LEAVE, that somehow that made the result illegitimate. Perhaps I exaggerate with the previous sentence, but you know what I mean!
True, the winning margin was only 3.8%, and it was true that for much of the night of 23/24 June, as the results came in, it could have gone either way. I personally was prepared to wake up in the morning to a REMAIN victory. But in the end, that didn’t happen. As the results started to trickle in, I decided to stay up, and almost against all the odds (and more pertinently for our blog, the betting!), LEAVE pulled it off. The result was LEAVE 52%, REMAIN 48%. Or, for fans of decimal points, LEAVE 51.9%, REMAIN 48.1%, on a turnout of 72.2%. The nearest-run thing indeed!
Or was it? Have there been any referendums with closer results? Were they regarded as illegitimate? Or did the aforementioned results result in sour grapes from the losing side? Perhaps, unsurprisingly, I can give you two relatively recent (ie. within the last 20-ish years) referendum results that were much closer.
The first was held in Quebec, the majority French-speaking province in Anglophone-majority Canada. It was the second of two sovereignty referendums, and was held in 1995, fifteen years subsequent to the first referendum, where the NO (to sovereignty) side won rather convincingly with 59.6% of the vote compared with the YES side’s 40.4%.
The second referendum, in 1995, resulted in a markedly narrower victory for the NO side, even narrower than LEAVE’s win in June 2016. In this second Quebec vote, the NO team got only 50.6%, and YES got 49.4%, on a massive turnout of some 93.5%, a record for any election in Quebec. The swing from the 1980 vote was 9% to YES, and the winning margin was only 1.2%, less than a third of LEAVE’s margin at EU Ref!
There was an undercurrent of, shall we say, “moaning” from the losing side, mostly to do with what exactly constituted spoilt ballots, as well as some campaign funding grumbles, though to this date there has NOT been a third referendum, and Quebec has remained part of Canada and the Commonwealth.
But even more recently, and with UK relevance, was an even closer result. I guess some of you can remember the very tight result at the Welsh Devolution Referendum of 1997. I remember staying up for that on results night thinking that the Welsh, in contrast to the Scots seven days earlier, would reject devolution. And yet, the YES (to devolution) side pulled off an even narrower victory than the NO team in Quebec. The result was YES 50.3%, NO 49.7%, a margin of only 0.6%, half of the margin in Quebec. I’m sure the ghost of the Iron Duke would have revelled in that result!
And the constitutional implications of this closest of results? Wales duly got her devolved assembly, despite the winning margin being only 6,721 votes on a 50% turnout. The Government of Wales Act 1998 ensued, and the formation of the National Assembly for Wales occurred in 1999.
To close this header, I would like to put it to you: if these two examples of very close referendum results can be respected by the losing “teams”, at least in the long term, why not the result for the UK’s EU Ref in June 2016?
N.B. Some of you may well remember the Scottish Devolution Referendum of 1979, a result that was almost exactly the same as EU Ref: YES to devolution 51.6%, NO 48.4%. I felt that it was a little too far in the past to include with Quebec 1995 and Wales 1997, but the YES side in this case were thwarted by the 40% rule for that legislation, where 40% of the total electorate was needed for the legislation to pass. Given turnout was 63.7%, YES got only 32.9% of the electorate. There wasn’t any turnout threshold for Quebec, Wales or EU Ref.