Professor Matt Qvortrup is renowned for being able to predict the outcome of referendums with pinpoint accuracy. He also wrote the book – literally – on how best to run referendums. Here, he gives our Writer at Large a fascinating insight into the forces which will decide the outcome of any future second referendum on independence

ONE of the best minds in the field of political science has come up with an elegant, if daring, solution to the deadlock over Scotland’s constitutional future: take the matter completely out of the hands of politicians and give it to the people.

Professor Matt Qvortrup is the world’s authority on referendums. He famously predicts the results of referendums with pinpoint accuracy, nailing the Brexit vote. Qvortrup, who has just brought out the latest edition of his seminal work Referendums And Ethnic Conflict, spoke to The Herald on Sunday at length about how to break the constitutional stalement – as well as diagnosing the health of our democracy.


Qvortrup is also a renowned expert on the decline of democracy. His recent book Death By A Thousand Cuts: The Slow Demise Of Democracy is considered a landmark work on the threat from authoritarianism. He says Scotland needs an MOT to make sure the engine of our democracy is safe and sound.

On the independence question, Qvortrup says a Citizens’ Assembly should be established, free from political interference. The assembly would investigate independence, the union and the issue of a future referendum. Citizens would agreed a position which is then put to voters in a referendum.

Amid the constitutional standoff, the suggestion offers a path forward. Neither hardline nationalists nor unionists would dominate the discussion, and the recommendation would have the moral weight of “the people” behind it, forcing politicians to respect the findings.

The problem with referendums

IGNORING Qvortrup on the issue of referendums is folly. Using a combination of political and economic factors – including the inflation rate and the length of time a party has been in office – Qvortrup has perfected the art of predicting referendum results. He said Brexit would be won by 4 per cent – the outcome was 3.8%. Last week, Denmark held a referendum on whether to take part in EU military missions. The vote was 66.87% in favour. Qvortrup’s prediction was 66.9%.

However, leaving his powers of foresight aside, Qvortrup worries about the divisiveness of referendums. “The problem,” he says, “is that they aren’t conducive to the politics of listening.” Referendums – Qvortrup eschews the Latin plural referenda – are an expression of “our polarised world”. The rise of referendums has gone hand in hand with the rise of identity politics. “Politics used to be quite simple,” he says. “There were very clear lines of division – people would be either working class or bourgeois, and you’d vote for a particular party. Now we’ve a situation where that’s no longer true.”

Today, Qvortrup says, “we need to find things that define ourselves”. For politicians, referendums “are very good” at making voters “feel part of your tribe”.

He adds: “Those camps are very good if you want to win an election – if the SNP wants to maintain its near majority in the Scottish Parliament, but they may not be exactly what you’re looking for if you want to increase life expectancy.”

So referendums are the perfect means of distraction, he says. Amid referendum debates “you tend to forget about other things like the trains running on time”.

He adds: “Referendums are slightly dangerous mechanisms, as if they’re abused by political elites then they divert attention from other things. And that’s the problem with identity politics. It’s ‘politics’, rather than ‘policy’. Politics is about ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ – we need to move away from ‘politics’ towards ‘policy’. Policy is about what’s feasible and not feasible. We need to find a way in which we can talk and listen to people.”

Indy is totally reasonable

QVORTRUP isn’t anti-independence. “Why couldn’t Scotland become independent?” he asks. “I think the idea of an independent Scotland in a united Europe is totally reasonable. Scotland would probably be pretty much an average-sized country … Malta has been independent for just over 50 years.

“If Malta can do it, without oil, then why not Scotland? I don’t think [independence] must happen, I don’t think it’s necessarily likely to happen, but I think we can be totally relaxed about it.”

He says Scotland shares many traits with Scandinavia and favours Scotland joining the Nordic Council.

“Stirling is closer to Stavanger than Surrey,” Qvortrup adds.

As former chair of politics at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, he knows Scotland well. He is currently professor of political science and international relations at Coventry University and editor-in-chief of the journal European Political Science Review. He has sat on The Constitution Society’s working party on Scottish independence.

The Catalan lesson

THE question of Catalan independence was used by Yes and No parties in Spain to “solidify the base”, Qvortrup says. “It’s a fantastic recruiting sergeant. Parties which have nothing else and want to divert attention away from not having delivered policies quite like referendums.”

That tactic could even lead to “Boris Johnson coming out saying we need to settle this”. He believes a “bring it on” moment would cause “fear” within the SNP – despite there being no guarantee, given the state of the Conservative Government, that No would win. However, it would “shoot the fox” of the SNP. Nevertheless “there’s the conceivable chance that [Yes] might be able to just scrape over the line”.

However, predicting any future referendum result is currently impossible. A date is crucial. So right now, it’s simply a case that the Yes camp “may or may not win”, he adds.

Although “a majority of people in Scotland probably don’t want a referendum”, another lost vote “would be curtains for the SNP”.

Other indy votes

QVORTRUP has analysed the 60 independence referendums held over recent decades around the world. “The ones that have been successful, and led to the creation of a new state, were in places where you don’t have proper democracy,” he points out. One exception was Iceland achieving independence from Denmark in 1944, though that was held amid war.

In democratic countries, people tend to feel “is it really that bad?”, and prioritise stability. In terms of Scotland, this doesn’t bode well for the SNP. However, Qvortrup says “the slight caveat is that if we’re moving into a time of identity politics, and people are less interested in bread-and-butter issues, then that might change the equation – that’s probably the only thing they can hope for”.

Despite his concerns about referendums, Qvortrup believes they remain “essential” in democracies. For example, referendums allow the significant number of SNP voters who don’t back independence to make clear where they diverge from the party. Qvortrup isn’t advocating “no referendums”, rather he wants referendums to improve.

The big idea

QVORTRUP’S “big idea” is passing power to the people on intractable problems like the constitution, in the hope of rediscovering a sense of “compromise”.

He cites immigration as an example, saying nobody wants zero immigration or unlimited immigration. “So, where on the continuum do we settle? Whenever we’re dealing with political issues we have to go back and try to find these compromise positions first.”

Scotland, he says, needs to reignite its Enlightenment spirit of “detaching”, being “dispassionate” and asking “what needs to be done to make this a good place to be” – rather than tribalism which creates deadlock.

He notes alliances in Germany where Greens have shared power with Christian Democrats – like “Opus Dei meets Caroline Lucas”, Qvortrup says. “That coat of many colours of politics forces us to debate and listen. Germans know that if you don’t do consensual politics, things have been pretty bad.”

He highlights how divided Ireland was politically over abortion until just recently. “It was completely binary … polarised politics of the worst kind,” he says. Then the issue was given to an Irish Citizens’ Assembly of 100 members, who heard evidence from all sides and found a compromise position which was put it to the people in a referendum that approved the right to abortion. It’s seen as a model of how to solve bitter political division.

“What’s interesting about that approach is that it’s about finding out what we can settle for, what we can all be happy with. The Irish approach is one where we initially get the people to figure out what it is that we really want to vote for.”

A Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit could have allowed for a compromise position to be put to a vote, perhaps asking if Britain wanted to be like Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, “or all in like Germany”.

Scottish people

ON a second Scottish referendum, Qvortrup says: “Before any vote on independence, there should be a Citizens’ Assembly with representative people saying ‘okay, what do we want for Scotland? How do we want Scotland’s relationship to be with the UK?’ Then we can vote on that. We should have a listening mode before we go into shouting mode.”

He refers to the Chinese story of the “three stupid shoemakers and Confucius” – in other words, there are problems the cleverest politician cannot solve which ordinary people can. Ordinary people “bring very practical issues into debates which politicians might not have thought about”.

This form of “complimentary democracy” provides for a “pragmatic, relaxed” approach to divisive issues. “It takes the heat out,” Qvortrup says. In Ireland, during the Citizens’ Assembly on abortion, all views were given an airing “from the Jesuit priest to the LGBTQ feminist”.

Qvortrup even suggests that the decision about what’s debated should be removed from politicians. “If we really want referendums, why don’t we allow the people to initiate them? We could have a system whereby 500,000 people in Scotland could demand a referendum and then one would be held. People then decide, instead of it being left to politicians.”

He wants “to take the politics out of things. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then let’s take the politics out”. However, he doesn’t believe in just getting rid of politicians. “We need to have parties – professional politicians have a role to play.”

Declining trust

THE big worry for the SNP and any future referendum is Qvortrup’s warning that the longer a party is in power, the less likely they are to win. He has crunched the numbers and found that when it comes to referendums “you lose basically 1.3% of your lead for every year you’re in office”. The SNP came to power in 2007.

“When you’re in power you’re gradually squandering popularity. The longer you’re in office the more people you’re going to disappoint, the more people are going to say ‘you didn’t deliver on that’ – the more people you alienate through sins of commission and omission.”

David Cameron, he points out, “had been in office for six years at the time the [Brexit] referendum was held. For that reason he just dipped below. If he’d had the referendum in 2013, he would have won by 3%, according to my model”.

The SNP need to bear this in mind as “they’re wearing out their shoes”. In 1992, he says: “The Danes famously voted ‘no’ to the Maastricht Treaty. It happened when the Conservative government had been in office for eight years.

“The following year a new socialist government secured a comfortable majority on essentially the same deal. So governing costs. As it happened, eight years later, the same socialist government lost a referendum on the euro.

“The consensus was that they had run out of credibility as they had broken campaign promises. So, in referendums, timing is everything.”

He adds: “To govern is to antagonise, and this is the main reason that referendums are lost.”

The referendum on Scottish devolution took place directly after Tony Blair’s historic 1997 election victory and was a landslide in favour.

Zero sum game

THE key problem in modern Scottish and UK politics is that it’s become a zero sum game where all that matters is “I’m beating your side”, says Qvortrup. Scottish people “should take one simple fact: every time you engage in political debate, try to learn something from your opponent”.

He adds: “We’re not ‘what we know’, but ‘what we’re willing to learn’.”

Being more open minded means better, more effective, policies. Rather than rowing over train strikes, try asking “how effectively can we solve the crisis with the trains”.

By making politics binary – like blaming everything on Brexit – we “shut down debate” as few Leavers will engage if they are immediately deemed wrong.

Risk to democracy

ALTHOUGH Qvortrup worries about the state of Scottish democracy, he’s much more concerned about England. “My democratic MOT for both countries wouldn’t be a pass, but there’s probably much more coach work to be done on the English side.” He notes the Scottish Government “is paradoxically less nationalist that the one in England”.

It’s a positive that Scotland’s PR voting system forces some “element of compromise”. However, the problem in Scotland “is that you’ve a whole army of people who don’t want compromise. We don’t have anything like in Germany – the Waffen SS who go out and beat you up – but we do have an army of trolls that make sure you’re absolutely shut down if you say anything that might even be interpreted one way or the other. Those ones are there to beat you up rather than to listen to you and debate.”

Qvortrup makes clear that both unionist and nationalist “troll armies” are equally bad.

In his analysis of the threats to democracy, he warns that the ancient Greek term “thymos” is one of the foundational risks. Thymos means a sense of angry passion aroused by wounded pride – by the sense of being “left behind”. He sees those Scottish “trolls” as motivated by this dangerous emotion. Qvortrup stresses he doesn’t see Nicola Sturgeon or other public figures in this light. “Scottish politicians are by and large pretty sensible people, but some of their supporters have reached that “we can’t compromise, never surrender” approach”. He adds he sees Sturgeon as having “the effortless ease of greatness” – a politician who can both talk policy competently and rouse her base. “She’s able to appeal to both hearts and minds.”

Authoritarian Boris

IN England, democratic risks are much higher with Boris Johnson interfering in the electoral system and the judiciary. Qvortrup refers to democracy being plucked like a chicken, one feather at a time. “You don’t really notice until it’s gone. Democracies fall mainly not as a result of coup d’état but as a result of withering away, chipping away”.

The sense of thymos often leads to “demagogues” claiming they’re on the side of the people. On the spectrum of anti-democratic leaders, Qvortrup says, Johnson is “at the lower end”.

There are more democratic checks and balances in Britain than Turkey or India which have drifted towards authoritarianism under Erdogan and Modi. Qvortrup sees that as the main break on Johnson.

“That might be what’s saving us,” he says. Without partygate, if Johnson “still had command over his parliamentary grouping he might have been able to get away with this”, adding: “So it’s down to the incompetence of the individual that we haven’t gone the whole hog into authoritarianism. Trump’s incompetence probably saved democracy in America.” Qvortrup cautions against the “it could never happen here” argument, pointing to the Roman statesman Cicero, accused of “crying wolf” over the threat to the republic, yet within 14 years “it was gone”.

US democracy dead?

CAN American democracy – stripped of compromise, and polarised and angry – survive? “I’ve my doubts. If Trump comes back and we’ve the same onslaught then I really have my doubts. Then Europe is truly alone. It’s scary as hell. I think we’re talking 50-50. America is in the balance – if America goes, all bets are off.”

Only 40% of nations are now democracies – the figure was about 60% around 20 years ago. Poland teeters on the brink, but Hungary, under Viktor Orban, “is beyond the point of no return”. Orban, Qvortrup says, followed the demagogue’s “playbook” –undermining the electoral system, media and opposition. “Presto, it’s no longer a democracy.”

Education, he believes, along with a willingness to listen and compromise, are key to keeping democracy alive. Citizens can’t just wait for politicians to “solve the problem”, he says. “If you want to live in a democracy, and not feel left behind, then part of the social contract is that you also make a contribution yourself.

“So, what would you do?”