Hanoi ought to ban cars not motorbikes


A number of reputable news organisations are reporting that Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, is proposing banning motorbikes from its city centre. I’m hesitant to venture an opinion because a) these reports are not especially detailed and b) while I did live in Hanoi for a while it’s a complicated and rapidly changing city that I only partially understand. Nonetheless, I’m wary of the idea.

The BBC reports that:

The local government wants streets to be motorbike-free by 2025 as part of efforts to tackle congestion, the Thanh Nien News website says. The Vietnamese capital has notoriously chaotic roads, with around five million motorbikes vying for space alongside half a million cars.

That situation is forecast to get worse in years to come: the authorities estimate that by 2020 there will be seven million motorbikes, and the number of cars will double. “This means the traffic situation in Hanoi will become extremely complicated in the next four to five years, so we really need a timely solution to this,” says mayor Nguyen Duc Chung.

The city’s transport authority wants to reduce the number of individual vehicles and boost public transport instead, and its chairman wants the number of buses to double. Construction of a new urban rail system is already under way.

I can’t quite imagine that. Motorbikes so suffuse my memories of Hanoi that I can’t really imagine it without them. It’s basically impossible to go anywhere in the city without seeing them: they are on every road and every pavement. From a distance most shops and restaurants appear to be motorbike showrooms because virtually all their customers arrive on bikes that then get parked outside. There are of course also masses of actual motorbike shops.

I actually rather liked this aspect of the city. While I had a pedal bike rather than a scooter, I appreciated the impact their near universal ownership had on the transport ecosystem of the city. It meant you were allowed to take bikes more or less everywhere and everywhere provided parking for them. There’s also a less tangible aspect to my affection for Hanoi’s bike culture. For reasons that will become apparent there are many reasons that many people disagree but for me bikes are a key part of what gives Hanoi the bustle I so enjoyed.

Of course, if banning bikes really would contribute to improving quality of life then my sentimental attachment to them would count for naught. And the case that it would hinges on a legitimate issue: air quality. The pollution in Hanoi is not at the level of industrial towns in China or India. It forms a thin haze not a thick smog. Nonetheless, it still kills thousands of people a year. Surprisingly, even though they burn less fuel than cars, motorbikes actually emit more of the micro-particulates that cause lung damage. This is apparently a legacy of the fact that governments have tended to regulate them less carefully than cars. Getting people off bikes and scooters and onto public transport (and potentially back onto pedal bikes) might therefore improve air quality.

My fear, however, is that the slack will be taken up instead by cars. Vietnam’s very rapid economic growth is rapidly expanding the number of families who can afford them. Unless that growth falters in a pretty remarkable way, it seems likely that the number of cars on Hanoi’s street will rise inexorably. By contrast, the ability of public transport systems to expand fast enough to match the growth of the city’s population is a much more open question. The opening of the city’s metro is already significantly behind schedule.

Replacing scooters with cars might improve air quality but it is likely to worsen everything else. I’d be especially worried about congestion. Bikes are well suited to Hanoi’s narrow, crowded and often chaotic streets. Even on roads that are packed solid with scooters, their drivers will generally still be able to manoeuvre around each other. Cars can’t. So if you get caught in a traffic jam in Hanoi, after a lot of stopping, starting and waiting, you usually catch up to a car or lorry that was constricting the flow of traffic. Once you get ahead of it you’ll generally find the road a lot clearer. So more cars would be bound to lead to more congestion. That would not only be a hassle for the city’s residents and a drag on business activity but it would also create air pollution problems of its own.


Not only do cars take up space when they are being used but also when they are not. If the number of cars grows, so will the space that needs to be given over to parking. That means turning over land that could be used for housing, businesses or amenities to the storage of metal boxes. Scooters by contrast are small enough to be stowed in hallways or on patios. Indeed, because they are such a part of Hanoian life such spaces are usually already provided.

Banning scooters but not cars would also have the unfortunate impact of essentially rationing the ability to drive in central Hanoi by income. While many more Vietnamese can afford cars than before, it will be a long while still until everyone can. For some of those who can’t, using a push bike may be an option. But the temperature can hit 40°C in summer and many people use their motorbikes to carry passengers or luggage. So for many Hanoians that won’t be a substitute.

My inclination is therefore that motorbikes still have a constructive role to play in Hanoi’s transport system. Adding railway lines and buses is clearly a good idea. But getting them to the scale where they can replace scooters will take a long time. Longer, I suspect than the cities authorities are allowing themselves. By contrast, cars seem likely to add nothing but congestion. Many cities around the world are trying to wean themselves off reliance on cars. Hanoi is in a position where it can avoid getting addicted in the first place.

Blogging about faith: What do you want to read?



St Mark’s Basilica in Venice

In the 3 years I’ve been writing this blog I’ve written more than 700 posts. Some of my favourites have dealt with religion and in particular Christianity. Among them:

But of late I’ve written about it a lot less. That’s partly been because there’s been a lot of politics to discuss lately and that’s a subject I find it easier to write about, so I get drawn to that. But mostly it’s been because I’ve been struggling for inspiration.

I regret that. While I’m very far from being any kind of theology expert, faith is a topic I like writing about. There’s a much greater plurality of views amongst my readers on religion and philosophy than there is on politics and (surprisingly) of the two it seems to be the one where it’s easier to have frank but friendly discussions between people of different views.

So I’d like to go back to writing about it but for that I need topics. So for the first time I’m throwing this blog open to requests.

Are you a non-Christian who’d like a Christian perspective on something? Are a conservative Christian looking for a liberal Christian perspective? Are you a liberal Christian looking to have your prejudices reinforced? Are you interested in agnosticism? If so let me know and I will see what I can do.

I’m also very open to hosting guest posts if there is something you want to write and want a place to host it.


Photo credit: By Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) – taken by Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2292943

Let’s ban referendums

Britain has traditionally done without referendums. It’s time to reinstate that tradition.

One of the perils of being a Brit abroad at the moment is being repeatedly asked to explain Brexit. I got a small foretaste of this a few years back, when I was travelling in Southern Europe during the climax of the vote on Scottish independence. I was in Italy for the vote itself but a few days later moved onto Slovenia. As it turned out Slovenes had taken quite an interest in the vote. I was told more than once that the referendum reminded them of Slovenia’s 1990 referendum on leaving Yugoslavia.

This comparison has also occurred to Fedja Buric, a historian of the Former Yugoslavia, who has written a provocative post for Sheffield University’s Why History Matters project. Essentially he argues that:

The UK has a lot in common with Yugoslavia. Like Yugoslavia, the UK is a complicated multinational state born out of a contentious historical project that often overlapped with the imperial project of the country that would form the core of the multinational federation. For Yugoslavia, this was Serbia, and for the UK, this was England. Like the English in Scotland and Ireland, the Serbs in Croatia, Kosovo and Bosnia were sometimes perceived as brute conquerors.

This is a concerning precedent because Yugoslavia would eventually disintegrate. The departure of Slovenia removed a chunk of non-Serb voters from Yugoslavia’s population, which left those non-Serbs who remained feeling even more vulnerable. So Croatia followed, then Macedonia and on until Yugoslavia ceased to exist.This would not be a benign process  A number of the departing republics had large Serb populations and many of them were not prepared to be separated from their kin. So – at the behest of Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslav government – they began trying to create ‘ethnically cleansed’ enclaves within the new republics that could be attached to a ‘Greater Serbia’ in the future.

The odds of any breakup of the UK resulting in such violence are remote. Though at least with regards to Northern Ireland, violence is a very real prospect. But peaceful is not the same as desirable. Unpicking a four hundred year old political union would be a hugely disruptive process.

Buric identifies a common problem in both the British and Yugoslav cases: the use of referendums.

These brief exercises in direct democracy not only fail to solve existential societal questions, but they bring to the fore societal divisions that had previously been channeled into civil political discourse (like in the UK) or, yes, been politically repressed (like in the case of Yugoslavia).

Because they are almost always organised around issues that seem existential, their disruptiveness is also due to the fact that they are, mostly, irreversible. Unlike in elections, the losing side cannot redirect its anger into winning the next round because the matter had supposedly been settled forever.

Take the example of the Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia. In 1992, the newly, democratically elected, Muslim-Croat government organised a referendum on whether or not Bosnia-Herzegovina should leave the Yugoslav federation after two of its richest republics, Slovenia and Croatia, had already opted out. The Bosnian Serbs, overwhelmingly in favour of staying in Yugoslavia where they could maintain their links to Serbia, boycotted the referendum knowing that the fact that they composed slightly over 30 percent of the population. Their participation would see them outvoted, but still legitimise the referendum. Predictably, the referendum returned an overwhelming ‘yes’ for independence. Equally predictably, the referendum led to war, as Bosnian Serbs carved out their piece of Bosnia which they wanted to remain in Yugoslavia.

The allegation that referendums threaten democracy is not a new one. In 1975, Margaret Thatcher called them:

[A] device of dictators and demagogues.

And when Churchill suggested holding one in 1945; his eventual successor, Clement Attlee, responded:

I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum

Their hesitancy was likely born of having seen the role referendums played in Hitler’s rise. The would-be Führer used them to pull Germany out of the League of Nations, legitimise the merger of the role of Chancellor and President with Hitler filling both roles, and to approve Austria’s annexation. Similarly, both Emperor Napoleons used them to legitimise their seizures of power.

What these cases illustrate is that precisely because referendums are such a pure expression of democracy their symbolism can become a threat to democratic government. They appear more legitimate than the checks and balances that a constitution provides. That allows ‘dictators and demagogues’ to use them as weapons to break the restraints that keep them from obtaining absolute power.

Now clearly that is not what happened with the Brexit referendum. Rather than granting a leader absolute power, it triggered his resignation. Nonetheless, the same dynamic is visible. A slight victory for Leave over Remain has resulted in a situation where Remainers now have to defend their right to still express a view on the situation:

This creates problems when it is combined with the mundane fact that referendums are harder to hold than votes in parliament. It means they are only held very occasionally. In the UK, for a proposal to become law it must be voted on at least three times by both the House of Commons and the Lords, as well as being considered by committees and receiving assent by the monarch. By contrast, the referendum is a single vote on a single day prone to whatever perculiar factors happen to be in play in that narrow slice of time.

Screenshot (63)

Check and balances are not just designed to prevent the emergence of dictators. They are also supposed to improve the quality of the decisions made by democrats. They allow for compromise and reconsideration. Yet a narrow Leave victory in a referendum seems to have foreclosed the possibility of either. Most of our political class now seems to consider the UK leaving the EU to be the one immutable fact of our political life. Regardless of an impending recession, the apparent inability of leavers to deliver on their promises and the number of leave voters who now regret their decision, we must drive on towards what increasingly looks like a cliff edge because there was a narrow majority for it in a referendum.

So I want to propose banning referendums. I generally think it’s a strength of the British constitution that it is not codified into a single document but maybe we could create one with a single provision: no referendums. Or if we want to stick with doing everything by informal conventions, how about a new one that says that a government that proposes holding a referendum is deemed to have resigned. That seem fair to me because if you want to be the government then you ought to govern rather than kicking decisions back to the very people who elected you to make decisions.

Would there be a price to pay for this? Sure but not a very high one.

The British experience is that Prime Ministers use national referendums to achieve party unity not to promote the national interest. And it doesn’t even achieve that. Wilson called the 1975 referendum on British membership of European Community with a view to reconciling pro and anti factions within his own party but only a few years later continuing tensions over that subject would contribute to Labour MPs breaking away and forming the SDP. The 2011 vote on AV reflected divides within the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition but only heightened them with many Lib Dems bitter about the way the ‘No’ camp targeted Nick Clegg personally and their claims about the exorbitant cost of fictitious voting machines. And  it remains to be seen whether the referendum just held can stop the Europhobic Tories from trying to destroy their Eurosceptic brethren. Personally I’m dubious.

Now, there is still a theoretical case for referendums in that they allow for ‘unbundling‘. Essentially, when voters choose a party in a General Election they are selecting between set menus of policies. Referendums make more ‘a la carte’ choices, for example, selecting the SNPs approach to social and economic policy but rejecting its desire for independence.

But this theory doesn’t translate very well into practice. It often is not possible to select individual policies because they need to be taken together to work. California’s system of ballot initiatives made it politically and legally possible for the state’s voters to increase spending without raising taxes but that did not make it financially sustainable. And as the current Brexit farrago illustrates it’s generally better to line up policy and personnel. Requiring remainers to take Britain out of the EU is not only strange but it muddies substantially the issue of accountability. If Brexit results in a deterioration in the UK’s position is that an indictment of their implementation of the policy or a vindication of their initial opposition to it? Witness how the SNP insulates itself from scrutiny by attributing anything bad that happens to Scotland to ‘the Tories in London’.*

Now you might reasonably object that this post is the product of my bitterness at the outcome of the EU referendum. That’s clearly partially correct: I didn’t write this when the Scottish Independence referendum produced an outcome I liked. But truth be told I’ve never liked direct democracy much. A feeling that the Brexit vote has intensified not only because I object to the decision it has resulted in but also because it was clearly a bad way to arrive at that decision. The election of a pro-Brexit government with a majority in the Commons would have been preferable. We could have planned better for our departure and avoided the period of transitional instability. It would also avoid the weird dynamic whereby MPs are having to second guess their judgements based on what they take Leave voters’ motivations to have been.

Despite all of this I would not dispute the notion that referendums are in important regards a purer form of democracy than conventional elections. But in politics purity is rarely a wise thing to seek. We need balance: a market economy softened by a welfare state, the ability of governments to make decisions tempered by the rule of law, and majority rule given stability and coherence by being funneled through appropriate institutions. Direct democracy negates those institutions and the valuable function they perform. It removes checks and balances, makes our policy making less responsive to circumstances, convinces people they face existential crises and encourages mutually incompatible policy choices.

We’ve now had three UK wide referendums. Let’s leave it at that.


*Though of course there are occasions on which this is a legitimate point and Brexit is definitely one of them.



Now what?

We shouldn’t have a second referendum, Scotland shouldn’t become independent and Boris mustn’t become PM


Having made a monumental mistake, what is a nation to do?

We don’t have any good options and of the miserable options available, it’s hard to tell which of them is the least ghastly. Even were I less of an emotional wreck, I’d have difficulty making a sensible choice between them. But these currently seem like prudent things to do:

1: Do not attempt to overturn the referendum result

It breaks my heart to say this. There would certainly be just cause for trying. Leave’s victory was small, rested on demographics that are being progressively eroded and was only achieved by telling demonstrable untruths. And there’s precedent for this:  EU related referendums have been re-run in the past. And legally speaking, Parliament could just ignore the referendum result.

But let’s be realistic about the politics of this situation. When previous referendum results have been reversed that was following a protest vote about some relatively minor treaty modifications. Voters weren’t that fussed about the substance of the issue, so getting them to change their mind about it wasn’t that hard. By contrast, the vote we just had clearly represents something of greater significance.

Trying (and most likely failing) to erase their choice will only feed a narrative that they have been disempowered by a craven elite. And it will prolong the uncertainty about Britain’s future.

If the rest of the EU offers us substantively different terms then that would be a different but they probably shouldn’t as that would invite other member states to start trying their own brinksmanship.

2: Scottish independence remains a bad idea

England and Wales have put Scotland in an invidious position. We’ve made them choose between the Union and the European Union. Rightly Scots are angry and I quite get why there are calls for a 2nd Indy referendum. I think it’s also pretty hard to disagree with the notion that a Brexit is a legitimate reason to hold another vote so recently after the last one.

But notwithstanding Brexit, the case for Scottish independence. While it does a lot of trade with the rest of the EU it does an order of magnitude more with the rest of the UK. Ditto for the movement of people. And it is far more integrated into the British state than it is with the European Union. Leaving the UK would disrupt the lives of Scots more than leaving the EU. So I reluctantly recommend to them that they stay with us even as we take them out of Europe.

Indeed, Brexit arguably makes independence a riskier proposition because it creates the possibility of Scotland being in the Single Market and the remaining UK being outside it. Tariff barriers between the two nations is not worth contemplating.

4: Johnson must not be allowed to become PM

Following Cameron’s resignation, the Conservative Party will now elect a new leader. Under no circumstances should that person be Boris Johnson. He proved himself inept in his handling of the relatively insubstantial role of London Mayor belying the notion that Conservatives are fiscally prudent with a series of expensive vanity projects. But his competence (or lack of it) is less concerning than his character. He has lost his job for telling lies. Twice. He has made racist statements. A Conservative member of my acquaintance once yelled at him for using a homophobic epithet. And he has been caught on tape giving a criminal information he can use to beat up a journalist:


4: Corbyn has got to go

Historians will debate whether Corbyn was a covert Brexiteer or just a crap politician.  I favour the latter option but whatever the reason his waffley, half-hearted defences of the EU were basically no use to Remain. His inability to manage his party meant it fell apart when put in the spotlight. And worst of all his tribalism prevented Labour playing a full and effective role in the Remain campaign, which in turn made the whole debate seem like an internal Tory squabble.

By taking Britain out of the EU, the Conservatives have unleashed a monster. Its negative consequences will doubtless turn many voters off the party and that creates an opportunity for Labour. But only if they choose a less useless leader.


5: We need economic stimulus. Lots of it.

The fundamental economic problem that Brexit creates is on the supply side. If Britain leaves the Single Market then tariffs and regulatory mismatches will raise the cost of trading between the UK and the EU. But that will not be the most immediate effect. Businesses will perceive these future losses coming and will cut back on investment and perhaps even reduce their existing activities perceiving them to now be unprofitable. That will create a demand hit.

There are steps that can be taken to reduce this impact. The Bank of England can cut interest rates and engage in quantitative easing. The Government can raise its spending and/or cut taxes. The optics of these won’t be great. They will further reduce the value of the pound and will beget a further round of complaining from savers about their terrible returns. It will also push up the deficit. But we are in a crisis and our priority needs to be protecting people’s jobs and avoiding getting the UK stuck in a prolonged downturn.


6: Britain’s young people need to be offered something

Work, study and travel within the EU now join the list of opportunities that have been snatched away from the generation that came of age during the financial crisis. This is a breach of the social contract between generations and something ought to be done to compensate them. Perhaps break the break ‘the triple lock’ guaranteeing increases in the state pensions and use the money to fund tax credits or extra education spending.


7: Secure the rights of EU citizens already in the UK and UK citizens already in the EU

It seems particularly cruel to evict people from lands where they have established lives. Even leaving them worrying about the possibility is unpleasant. Resolving this should be a priority perhaps even to the extent that we should make a deal with the EU on this issue ahead of a broader agreement on post-Brexit relations.


8: Apply for EEA membership

As I’ve written before I think that EEA membership has more or less no benefits vis a vis actually being in the EU. But keeping Britain in the Single Market would negate many of the potentially dangerous economic consequences of Brexit and would go a long way to mollifying discontent in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It would also be a magnanimous gesture on the part of Brexiteers that acknowledged the fact that their victory was narrow. It would also provide a staging post for Britain to rejoin the EU at a later date.

It would be a hard sell politically as it would involve keeping intact free movement of labour (at least to some extent) and creates sovereignty problems that are arguably worse than those involved with EU membership. But as I said we don’t have good options and this seems like the least bad.

The 3 best cases for ‘Remain’ in less than 3 minutes


So today is the day Britain decides whether or not to leave the EU. This prospect fills me with dread. The EU is a flawed but very necessary institution. It facilitates trade, soothes political tensions and makes it easier for countries to co-operate. By contrast, the supposed benefits of exiting disappear when subjected to real scrutiny.

That’s a case that’s been made by a lot of people in recent months. But never as persuasively as by the three videos below.

First up is actress Sheila Hancock explaining why the UK can achieve more working with our neighbours against them:

And here’s entreprenuer Richard Branson explaining why most businesses – large and small – support EU membership:


And finally Ngaire Woods, Professor of Global Economic Governance at the University of Oxford, explaining why Leave’s notion that we will get better trade deals if we leave the EU is so fanciful:

A message for my Remain friends

It has just passed half eleven at night here in South Korea but I’m still wired awake. And I’m rather surprised why: an election thousands of miles away. Polling days have never given me trouble sleeping before. Even when the pressure’s been on me – when I’ve been the candidate, the agent or the one running the committee room – I’ve always been able to get some decent sleep at least until my alarm woke me up at 4am to go delivering Good Mornings. Maybe it’s precisely because I can’t turn my anxiety into motivation to do something constructive that it’s so much worse. I’ve donated money and turned my social media accounts into a stream of propaganda but that’s no substitute for speaking to voters. However, I think a more important factor is that I am more anxious.

As I wrote in my last post, the polls are about as close as you’re ever likely to see. And I see no reason to think they are wrong. This feels like an election that could very easily go either way.

But you guys give me hope. You are not the flashiest, in fact at times you can be downright boring. While Leave have alternated between ridiculous bravado and hyperventilating, you’ve stayed dignified and reasonable. Even, I must add, in the face of murder and violence. That’s not always an asset in a democratic system: drama is exciting and the pose of the rebel – even if it is just a pose – is an attractive one. But you guys are nonetheless an asset to the democratic system. We need people who will present the electorate with fact rather than fantasy, and force them to consider the small print of policy proposals. And crucially we need people who absorb and dissipate rather than amplify hate – or worse still succumb to it.

I am praying that you will be victorious tomorrow. I think you have a good chance. Clearly the passion gap between Leave and Remain has closed as the ugliness of the Brexiteers has become appearent. But I also recognise that much of the electorate is in an unreasonable mood – a staggeringly high proportion of Leave voters believe the election is being rigged! – and that makes reasonable arguments hard to make. But either way, it will be close and you may well be what stands between Britain and a terrible self-inflicted wound.

7 reasons why you still need to be campaigning like your life depends on it


We can still lose. The worse case scenario can still come to pass. You are still what is standing between Britain and a disaster.

Living in Korea does rather limit the amount I can contribute to the campaign to keep Britain in the EU. I’ve given money and turned my social media accounts into a barrage of propaganda but I can’t knock on doors, deliver leaflets or ring phones. So please allow me to hector the people who can.

Please, please, please, please, please, please do not relent in anyway. I know the polls are looking better but there’s still a very real risk of this all going very wrong. Please maintain the sense of panic you felt when Leave first took a poll lead – it’s still justified.

Perhaps the best summary of the narrative that seems to be emerging in response to the polls over the weekend is that provided by Anthony Wells, Director of YouGov’s political and social opinion polling, who wrote that:

…the movement [towards Remain] may be … to do with people worrying about the economic impact of leaving the European Union. In the Sunday Times poll 33% of people said they thought that they would be personally worse off if Britain left the EU, up from 23% a fortnight ago and easily the highest we have recorded on this question.

The pattern of public opinion on the EU referendum is looking very similar to the Scottish referendum in 2014. Back then there was a long period of little movement when most ordinary voters were paying little attention, this was followed by a period of movement in favour of Yes, as people were excited by the prospect of change, followed by a sharp correction back to the status quo as, in the final days, people worried about the risks associated with it.

This is a reasonable analysis and it’s probably right. Nonetheless, I don’t think it justifies the notion that Brexit is now implausible or a remote possibility. Nor do I think Wells would claim it does. It could very well still happen. Indeed, was I betting I would probably be putting money on Brexit. That doesn’t mean I think it is likely but I do think it is significantly less unlikely than the betting markets are suggesting.

Here’s why:

1. The polls are still really close

I would suggest that if you looked at those numbers without some kind of prior conviction that Brexit was unlikely or that the polls are understating support for Remain then you’d conclude the situation is more or less a wash. Yes, Remain has been ahead in the last three polls but never by enough to be outside the margin of error and by less than Leave was ahead during its moment of ascendancy.

2. There’s still plenty of stuff that could go wrong

If Remain’s lead is as narrow as the polls are suggesting it wouldn’t take much to wipe it out.

There are multiple TV debates during which Remain could hit a banana peel. The leader of the opposition might open his mouth and say something typically unhelpful like: ‘EU free movement means no immigration limit’. [What’s that? He’s already said that? Well that was daft of him!] A high-profile business leader could come out for Leave and muddle the message on that issue. God forbid, there could even be (another) terrorist attack.

3. The polls could be wrong

They were in the General Election and those are easier to poll because the pollsters have more experience with them because they occur more frequently. The assumption up till now has been that they are understating Remain because Leave supporters appear to be easier to contact and may therefore be being oversampled. But pollsters appear to be correcting for this and it’s possible there’s some other wrinkle they’ve not detected that means they are understating Leave.

4. We can’t put too much weight on the evidence of previous referendums

Part of the reason that such narrow poll leads have begat such confidence from some people is that historical precedent seems to be on Remain’s side. Peter Kellner, recently wrote that “referendums in Britain have tended to produce a late move to the status quo. The record from six such contests in the past four decades is striking”. That’s persuasive evidence, especially given that it seems to be coming to pass, but it’s hardly definitive. Six is not a huge sample size to draw inferences from and the political context of this referendum is different. Kellner also admits that in one referendum there was no movement towards the status quo. We should be alive to the possibility that this referendum could be another exception.

5. Turnout is a joker in the pack

Generally speaking the impact of turnout on British elections is pretty simple to understand. A higher turnout helps Labour. Tory voters draw disproportionate support from older and more affluent voters who tend to turn out reliably. The question therefore becomes whether Labour can get enough of its flakier supporters to the polls to overcome that advantage.

The Brexit vote scrambles that. Remain appear to lead with more affluent and better educated voters whilst Leave do better with older voters. It’s therefore, hard to predict how turnout will affect the result.

But one strong possibility is that Leave supporters will be more motivated to vote. It may be that part of the reason pollsters are finding them easier to contact is that they are simply more enthusiastic about telling people what they think about Europe. And as Wells’ description of the situation makes clear a lot of Remain support seems rather grudging. If it had a clearer lead Remain could be more sanguine about that but it doesn’t so this modest handicap could prove fatal.

6. The perception that Remain is ahead could actually cost it votes

If there are a body of voters who want to vote Leave but fear the consequences of doing so, and that notion rings true to me, if they start to think that those consequences will never actually materialise, they may feel secure in unleashing their political id.

7. A narrow victory is not good enough (Bonus point)

In a normal election it doesn’t really matter by how much you win. If you win, you win. But this isn’t a normal election. Don’t get me wrong I’d rather nearly lose than actually lose but if we have to eke out a victory that creates problems down the line.

Most concerningly, the Brexiteers would use it as a pretext for holding a second referendum. Heck, we don’t even know the result yet and they are suggesting it now.

I assume that the prospect of another round of regular politics grinding to a halt, divisive rhetoric spewing forth and financial markets tumbling does not fill you with joy. Each extra vote you win makes that less likely.

Conversely, a decisive vote against Brexit will be interpreted as a repudiation of putting up posters that look like they were artworked by Goebbels and just flat out inventing stuff. If the result is more ambiguous so will be the lessons drawn about the utility of such despicable techniques.

Conversely, a narrow victory for Leave is preferable to a larger one because that would make it easier to argue for remaining in the Single Market.


I’m not expecting that Britain will vote to leave the EU. But I won’t be surprised if it does. And neither should you. A small poll lead that only emerged recently combined with a modest set of past examples should do little to move our sense of the probabilities much off 50:50. The prospect of Britain doing something very reckless is very real. If you are in a position to do something to make that a little less likely please, please, please, please, please do.