Why referendums – like Brexit, Kurdistan and Catalonia – are always doomed to fail

What Is a Bump Stock and How Does It Work?
What Is a Bump Stock and How Does It Work?

Catalan and- Kurdish Referendums
Catalan and- Kurdish Referendums
Referendums make public opinion easy to manipulate because what voters are being asked to assent to is most often wishful thinking and what they are opposing is a rag-bag of unrelated grievances.

By Patrick Cockburn

Brexit, Krexit and Crexit: Britain leaves the EU, Kurdistan declares independence from Iraq, Catalonia secedes from Spain – three massive political changes either under way or put on the political agenda by recent referendums. Three very different countries, but in all cases a conviction among a significant number of voters that they would be better off on their own outside any measure of control by a supranational authority like the EU or a nation state like Iraq or Spain.

Referendums have a lot to answer for: no wonder divided governments, demagogues and dictators have such a fondness for them. They have the appearance of popular democracy and give the impression that important decisions are finally being made by reducing complex questions into an over-simple “yes” or “no”. They make public opinion easy to manipulate because what voters are being asked to assent to is most often wishful thinking and what they are opposing is a rag-bag of unrelated grievances. There are a great many unhappy and dissatisfied people in the three countries which have voted in referendums in the last 15 months, but no reason to suppose that their vote will make them happier or better off.

The lack of substance in promises of good things to come should be more obvious than it is. It is particularly obscure in Britain because the pros and cons of Brexit are debated by both sides in economic terms, or in relation to the impact on immigration. The discussion is almost entirely in the future tense, but in practice the main disasters flowing from Brexit have already occurred.

From the moment the polls closed on 23 June 2016, British society has been deeply divided, probably more so than at any time since the 17th-century civil war 375 years ago. “It really is like a civil war without the gunfire,” said one commentator to me last week, speaking of the depth, rancour and lasting nature of these divisions. The Government is so split that it has yet to find enough common ground to get rid of Theresa May, even though she seems to be having a rather public nervous breakdown.

There is another danger at work here. The Brexiteers hark back to a golden British past when Britain stood alone and was the workshop of the world aided by the virtues of free trade. But this is a misreading of British history: being on the winning side in the Napoleonic and in First and Second World Wars had less to do with economic strength and more to do with naval power and skill in making alliances. Once again, the weakening of the British state is not something which will be postponed until after some elastic transition period – but has already begun.

The British experience of referendums is not unique and has parallels elsewhere. Experience shows that referendums are always used by the winning side to pretend that their majority, however slim and however low the turnout, represents the undivided national will. In fact, the 52 to 48 per cent Brexit vote reflected exactly that: a country split down the middle. The turnout in the vote in Catalonia last Sunday was only 42 per cent, but the Catalan Prime Minister is expected to declare independence if he is allowed to address parliament on Tuesday.

As is so often in history, those who want to carry out radical or revolutionary change do not get anywhere without provoking an unreasonable and counter-productive overreaction by those who want to preserve the status quo. It should not have required much consideration for the Spanish government to realise that sending in the national police to try and fail to stop the referendum, while beating up ordinary people in front of television cameras, was the best way to win sympathy for the pro-independence side. Hailing the Catalan chief of police, Josep Lluis Trapero, before a judge in Madrid on suspicion of sedition against the state, is likewise guaranteed to do nothing but give legitimacy to those holding the referendum.

The self-destructive idiocy of governments when defending their own interests never ceases to amaze. Those who justify their power by maintaining law and order cannot suddenly behave like thugs without wounding their authority. I remember half a century ago – in Northern Ireland in 1968 – asking a civil rights organiser about the next steps to be taken by his movement, which was seeking equal rights for Roman Catholics in a sectarian Protestant-run state. He said that he and his colleagues had just voted at a meeting to do nothing, but instead to wait for the government to make another crass mistake such as allowing the police force to attack peaceful civil rights marchers in front of photographers and television cameras. This the government duly did.

The referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan on 25 September has distinct features, but also points in common with other referendums: the vote was for or against independence for the Iraqi Kurds, the poll taking place in territories disputed by the Iraqi government as well as in Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) areas. It appears to have been called by KRG President Masoud Barzani to wrap himself in the Kurdish flag and present himself as the standard bearer of Kurdish nationalism. It can be taken as a given that most Kurds want an independent state, but the question is how feasible this is.

The vote was useful to Barzani in giving him legitimacy, though his term in office controversially ran out in 2015. Despite the KRG’s near economic collapse, Barzani has been able to divert attention from this and present the non-binding referendum result as a panacea or cure-all for the troubles of the Kurds, many of which are the fault of the corrupt and dysfunctional KRG government.

There is another similarity between Brexit and Krexit: Leave politicians in the UK pretended to voters that the balance of power between the UK and 27 EU states was equal and negotiations could proceed on that basis. Mr Barzani likewise said post-referendum he would negotiate independence directly with a compliant government in Baghdad. Of course, this was fantasy: May and Barzani both have weak hands to play against much stronger opponents. Baghdad is saying that there will be no negotiations about anything until the results of the referendum are annulled, and Turkey and Iran are in a position to squeeze the KRG into compliance.

Supporters of Brexit, Krexit and Crexit promise short-term dislocation in return for their countries achieving real independence and long term prosperity.

In fact, Britons, Kurds and Catalans are more like Edward Lear’s Jumblies, who famously went to sea in a sieve despite warnings that they would all be drowned, to which the Jumbles replied: “Our Sieve ain’t big / But we don’t care a button, we don’t care a fig / In a sieve we’ll go to sea!”
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  • MekensehParty

    What a bag of nonsense. It’s already terrible to compare Brexit, which is the case of a completely sovereign state voting to exit the EU (which is a market) and “Krexit” and “Cexit” which are both cases of separation from dictating powers historically seen as “occupiers”. No European troops landed in the UK and put the President of the EU on the Queen’s throne, but Iraqi and Spanish troops did in fact take control of Kurdistan and Catalonia respectively and dictated the destinies of these occupied people with a variety of means, some peaceful, other extremely bloody, or gassy I might add.
    I’m personally for more union rather than separation in general and while I agree that Brexit was an economical mistake for Britain it doesn’t affect the destiny of the Brits as much as that of the 2 peoples of the other 2 cases.
    After all, the UK was an extremely powerful country before the EU and remains so with the EU or without it. The brits had no guns on their head or any other form of freedom binding pressures.
    Catalonia is a bit of brattiness, a lot of pride and definitely self-interest, but one thing is sure, they had a gun on their head as we’ve seen last week the stupid Spanish police beating civilians for wanting to express peaceful views. As the writer points out, Spain gave them even better reasons to ask for independence. When Catalonia gets its independence, it will seek to join the EU as an independent country and will be accepted. Having its industries and good organization, Catalonia can become like many many countries in Europe who seceded from larger kingdoms or empires. To name but a few successful examples: Belgium, the Netherland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, the 3 Baltic states and quite a few more. All were part of larger kingdoms and empires and they gained their independence one way or another and tada! they’re perfectly ok. Catalonia will go through a tough period but eventually its place is well in Europe as an independent state.
    Finally the Kurds, those are people, like many other in the region, who were forced to accept a map that was dictated on them by two historically proven stupid persons who had no clue what they were doing nor could imagine the future implications of their actions. In fact Sykes and Picot wanted to punish the Kurds for their involvement in the Armenian genocide and so they divided their historic lands among 4 countries. Unlike the Catalans, the 4 different occupiers were simply terrible to them and the situation never got better. Even with the recent “autonomy” they won from neo-saddam Iraq, the Iraqi government kept treating them like shit, didn’t “share” the Kurds’ resources equally or as agreed (!!!???) and were left to be massacred when Isis invaded their lands. Way to build Iraqi national pride among them and make them feel like citizens who matter. The author talks about a bleak future for them, which is not far from the truth, but their future within the Iraqi state is way way way worse.
    I will conclude with an example of referendum that the author avoided mentioning, that of East Timor, the tiny Christian half island that gained its independence officially in 2002 after a referendum. I bet the author applauded the event, but whether my speculation is correct or not doesn’t change the fact that it was an example of the force of self-determination. They’re still poor as hell there, like the rest of Indonesia, but you know what, at least they’re free to be poor without a gun on their heads.

  • Hind Abyad

    “I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this,” wrote Henry Morgenthau, Sr., the U.S. ambassador to Constantinople at the time. “The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared with the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.”

    “Gertrude Bell
    In November 1915 she was summoned to Cairo to the nascent Arab Bureau, headed by General Gilbert Clayton. She also again met T. E. Lawrence.

    “Turkish atrocities: Armenian massacres

    While in the Middle East, Gertrude Bell became a witness to the Armenian Genocide. She remarked that in comparison to previous massacres, the massacres of preceding years “were not comparable to the massacres carried
    out in 1915 and the succeeding years.”[19]

    “Bell also reported that in Damascus, “Turks sold Armenian women openly in the public market.”[20] In an intelligence report, Bell wrote:Turkish atrocities: Armenian massacre The battalion left Aleppo on 3 February and reached Ras al-Ain in twelve hours….some 12,000 Armenians were concentrated under the guardianship of some hundred Kurds…These Kurds were called gendarmes, but
    in reality mere butchers; bands of them were publicly ordered to take parties of Armenians, of both sexes, to various destinations, but had secret instructions to destroy the males, children and old women…One of these gendarmes confessed to killing 100 Armenian men himself…the empty desert cisterns and caves were also filled with corpses…No man can ever think of a woman’s body except as a matter of horror, instead of attraction, after Ras al-Ain.”

    2While in the Middle East, Gertrude Bell became a witness to the Armenian Genocide. She remarked that in comparison to previous massacres, the massacres of preceding years “were not comparable to the massacres carried out in 1915 and the succeeding years.”[19] Bell also reported that in Damascus, “Turks sold Armenian women openly in the public market.”[20] In an intelligence report, Bell wrote:The battalion left Aleppo on 3 February and reached Ras al-Ain in twelve hours….some 12,000 Armenians were concentrated under the guardianship of some hundred Kurds…These Kurds were called gendarmes, but in reality mere butchers; bands of them were publicly ordered to take parties of Armenians, of both sexes, to various destinations, but had secret instructions to destroy the males, children and old women…One of these gendarmes confessed to killing 100 Armenian men himself…the empty desert cisterns and caves were also filled with corpses…No man can ever think of a woman’s body except as a matter of horror, instead of attraction, after Ras al-Ain.”[21]

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f1bd95651163e4a782657cd676f3d64d4eca91ea9eca022f24b9e0c31eda0586.jpg

  • wargame1

    People of Britain elected their leaders and send them in the parliament to make decision on behalf of them and these morons asked the people of Britain whether they should stay with EU or not!! Its like giving a loaded gun to a monkey. Do all the ordinary British people know the consequence of such a major decision? if yes then how many of them? Are they all highly educated in economics, international trade, foreign relations, State secrets, geopolitics and much much more??
    This type of decision has to be determined by the people in the government and not by any Tom Dick and Harry from the street. I call it breakshit.

  • PatienceTew

    Maybe just letting each person know how many others feel the same way on the issue is worth all the trouble? Revolution(or something) can come later.