The status quo tends to triumph in British referendumsby Peter Kellner / May 28, 2015 / Leave a comment
Is David Cameron trying to pull a fast one? We now know the wording he wants for his in-out referendum on British membership of the EU. It could scarcely be simpler: “Should the UK remain a member of the European Union?” We shall be asked to vote “yes” or “no”.
Not surprisingly, Ukip’s Nigel Farage says the question is unfair: “It is a simple straightforward, unambiguous question. That much is clear. However that Cameron is opting to give the pro-EU side the positive ‘Yes’ suggests strongly that his negotiations are so much fudge. He has already decided which way he wants the answer to be given, without a single power repatriated.”
Let’s leave aside our views about how much we like Cameron, Farage or Brussels. Objectively, does Ukip’s leader have a point? After all, psychologists say that people prefer to say “yes” rather than “no”; and we pollsters generally avoid “yes/no” answer options when testing people’s attitudes. We normally ask whether respondents agree or disagree with a proposition, or whether they support or oppose a policy idea.
A referendum, however, is not like a polling question, asked out of the blue. Voting comes at the end of a campaign in which both sides have the chance to make their case. By referendum day, people generally know which side they are on. It seems unlikely that the precise form of words on the ballot paper makes much difference.
Indeed, that is the lesson from the five major yes/no referendums in the UK over the past four decades. Here are the questions asked, and the results.
1975 UK-wide referendum: “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?” Yes 68%, No 32%
1979 Scottish referendum on devolution: Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect? Yes 51%, No 49%. (However, the “Yes” vote comprised 33% of the electorate and fell short of the 40% needed in this occasion for devolution to take effect)
1979 Welsh referendum on devolution: “Do you want the provisions of the Wales Act 1978 to be put into effect?” Yes 20%, No 80%
2011 UK-wide referendum on electoral system: “At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?” Yes 32%, No 68%
2014 Scottish referendum: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Yes 45%, No 55%
In only one referendum has there been a decisive “yes” majority—the vote 40 years ago to stay in the Common Market (as it then was). In three, “no” clearly won; and in the 1979 Scottish referendum, the “yes” vote won narrowly, but did not secure enough support for devolution to go ahead.
There is another way of looking at these results. In none of the five was there a decisive vote to change the status quo. The only referendum to provide a clear “yes” victory was also the only one of the five in which to vote “yes” was to vote to keep things as they are. This suggests that the real advantage Cameron will enjoy in the coming referendum flows not from the words on the ballot paper but from the tendency of people who do not feel passionately about the issue to prefer the safety of the status quo to the risks of change.
That said, the Scottish referendum campaign sends one clear message to those who want the UK to leave the EU. Scotland’s Better Together campaign struggled to persuade people that “no” was a upbeat vote for the Union rather, while the pro-independence campaign made full use of the positive associations of the word “yes”.
In the coming EU referendum, the campaign for “Brexit” will need to overcome the negativity of the word “no”—but that is a far simpler task than the bigger challenge of persuading voters that change on this occasion is safer than the status quo.