If I’ve learned anything over the last few weeks of pitiful so-called ‘debate’ leading upto today’s EU Referendum, it’s that politics is even more of a sham than I had previously dared imagine. Whichever way the vote goes, the most depressing conclusion is that due to the forces that have led to this conclusion, such an analysis seems unlikely ever to change.
My problem is nothing to do with the issue we’re actually voting on; morally, there’s lots to be said for granting the UK’s population the chance to review our involvement in the European ‘project’, half a lifetime after our parents and grandparents (as it mostly was back then) chose to enter the EC by a ratio of 2 to 1. The cause for my disdain is the way that our politicians of all sides and of all hues have consistently chosen to present their arguments – and for the most part, the acquiescence of the media in allowing their oversimplified agendae to remain unchallenged by nuance and critical thought.
The signs weren’t encouraging when the term ‘Brexit’ suddenly began to infiltrate our national consciousness. Given today’s 140-character attention-span, acronyms and portmanteaux are an increasing presence and while I can accept that the media will generally tend to embrace such terms to help them shorten headlines and seem current, it has always sat uneasily with me that such a stylised piece of jargon should be so embraced by the politicians themselves. In communicating effectively to the electorate, those whom we have chosen to represent us have a responsibility to maintain clarity in the face of a complex argument not descend into the latest piece of Westminster Village gobbledegook at the earliest opportunity. It was claimed by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1948 that Churchill once wrote “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put” in exasperation at the unwieldy restriction of correct English grammar where it hampers effective communication. The same argument can be made to the very term which has come to represent the whole issue in its ugly, five-letter, ‘dumbed-down’ state.
Similarly, the arguments on either side of the discussion have remained largely untroubled by too much careful consideration or any sense of balance. In or Out, the main tactic has been to scare the poor, well-meaning, responsible voter into submission by tainting their reasonable uncertainty with fear. “Vote Leave and create a recession” said the Remainers, almost certainly guided by James Carville’s now legendary psephological constant which asserts that “It’s the economy, stupid” when it comes to compelling voters. This was bad enough but given so much xenophobic material to work with, the Out campaign certainly left no barrel unscraped, with ‘all immingration is bad’ becoming the inevitable baseline for their rhetoric. The worst case scenario for such idiot-baiting was therefore unsurprisingly realised when Jo Cox MP was senselessly murdered while doing her job serving her community, a job that all people with a brain will realise is a public service denied to much of the world’s population.
While I’m on the subject of immigration (and I must address it at some point), it’s actually something of a red herring in the context of this referendum but there’s a hugely important point to be made. While the argument has become so childishly binary, we allow certain assumptions to stand as fact and it’s important to point out that they are not. I found myself in a minor Twitter spat with someone who accused me of being ‘anti-immigrant’ because I pointed out that it seems necessary to “control numbers”. Note: that does not mean cease immigration, merely apply control to the number, whatever that may be. I answered that controlling numbers wasn’t ‘anti-immigrant’, not even ‘anti-immigration’, just ‘anti-uncontrolled-immigration’. To righteously make the leap that I hate foreigners themselves because I have concerns about the capacity of the country was, I felt, pernicious thought-policing of the worst kind. Remember Gillian Duffy, the Rochdale pensioner whom Gordon Brown called a ‘bigot’ for expressing the same concerns? If the Prime Minister of the day can’t make that distinction, based on a knee-jerk assumption that people who question uncontrolled immigration must be unreconstructed Alf Garnetts, we are clearly not as intelligent a species as we like to think we are.
Where in this whole monstrous carbuncle of a process have we seen evidence of positive inspiration to vote one way or another? Any form of assessment that our life will be enhanced or enriched either way seems to have been lost in the universal agreement that the decision we face can only be characterised in the way our choice will need to protect us from one catastrophe or another. And we wonder why people are engaging less with Politics? Of course the electorate need to be convinced but there are ways to do that by inspiration as opposed to unremitting threats of desperation.
Actually, there does seem to be one tactic, employed on both sides, which I would have to admit is based in positivity and aspiration rather than the rest of the negative narrative – but it’s so pathetically facile, I almost can’t believe I’m allowing myself to distinguish it as a legitimate piece of electioneering. It is, alas, the celebrity endorsement.
We’re all used to seeing Gary Lineker’s face on a Walkers crisps ad or hearing Helen Mirren assure us that actually, *we*, not just she, can now be said to be “worth it”. We live in a consumer society and we’re so used to famous people telling us that they recommend such-and-such that we barely even notice it as a tactic anymore. Similarly, we all know which households in our local area will be desperate to stick up signage in their window or garden exhorting every passer-by to vote for this party or that, every time there’s an election. Why not combine the two ideas? There’s only two choices so there must be a ready selection of ‘slebs’ on either side who’ll only be too egotistical, sorry, happy to publicly align themselves with either argument. How meta is that? Forget the actual merits of the argument, everybody, just know that if you vote ‘Remain’, you’ll be on the same side as James Bond.
I don’t really have a problem with Daniel Craig outing himself as an ‘In’ supporter on Twitter – we all have the right to do that if we so desire and he’s no different, he just has more followers. What I do despair at is the expediency (which is doubtless in direct proportion to the number of followers) that saw our Prime Minister (Our. Prime. Minister. FFS) rush to accept the acclaim that, hey, even 007 is in my gang! I know I bang on about Churchill a lot (and I know he had his faults) and I like to use him as a go-to personification of a true statesman but consider this for a moment. Can you possibly imagine him even thinking of resorting to bolstering his position by noting that (for instance) “Mr. Nöel Coward has been insightful enough to agree that we must not pursue Mr Chamberlain’s policy of Appeasement”. To a statesman, there is politics and there is celebrity. One is determinant of the standard of living that a country enjoys, the other is a distraction from it. Ne’er the twain shall meet.
Many would claim that we’re now living in a celebrity-obsessed age. Is that why we’re being confronted with dumbed-down arguments, sugar-frosted with celebrity endorsement? Politicians have long acknowledged the power of the maxim ‘if you’re explaining, you’re losing’, which rather sadly seems at odds with the whole point of political debate, doesn’t it? Consequently, are they now living by the addendum ‘if you can retweet a film star, you’re winning’?
And so to the actual issue at hand. As we all know, it’s very tempting at this point to re-heat our favourite historical distractions like Agincourt, Trafalgar, Waterloo, “Two World Wars and One World Cup” and all that but ultimately, to do so only provides a jingoistic shot in the arm and achieves nothing so it must be resisted. At its heart, the issue first seems to be one of control: London or Brussels, UK or EU, ‘Queen and Country’ or ‘European Partners’. There is of course a lot to get worked up about when you consider the EU, the seemingly ever-growing mission creep of the project from trading entity to would-be federal state, the grossly-skewed-in-favour-of the-French CAP, the impenetrable lack of transparency and accountability of all the countless Eurocrats, the mind-boggling levels of resource it all requires and, one suspects, wastes.
And yet, we forget its primary aim, its – dare I use the French term? Yes, I dare – raison d’être was the avoidance of a continent-splitting bloodbath for the third time in half a century. From a very low baseline of expectation, it has to be said that, so far, that particularly basic aim has been successfully achieved. Well done, all concerned for avoiding potential world oblivion by finding an inordinate amount of more trivial matters to squabble about in expensively-designed buildings instead!
It has also, in fairness, provided protection from unfair trade tariffs, cut heavily (believe it or not) most cross-border bureaucracy, provided member states with the option of a common currency (which we seem to like, as long as it’s the same in every other country) and vastly simplified (via vastly complex rules on standards) the process of selling goods across the continent by providing the single source of regulation. Much of this happened before the internet age so, whether you wish to be charitable enough to say that the European project anticipated it or not, by the time we all realised we could now shop across national boundaries from home, much of the regulatory work was already done to enable the whole of the continent’s sellers to benefit from the shift in customer behaviour.
I don’t remember the 1975 referendum but I do remember the 1992 ‘Single Market’ upgrade that presciently paved this particular path. I remember the often ridiculous resistance to it, often from ‘Outraged of Tunbridge Wells’ retired Sergeant Major types: “we don’t want to be eating Italian sausages and Dutch cheeses when we have Cheddar and the good old British banger!” they prattled. And look what’s happened since then: our palate has become infinitely more cosmopolitan, our cupboards now brim with foods we didn’t even know existed twenty-four years ago. We haven’t just savoured the salami since ‘92, we have cherished the chorizo and venerated the wurst. And we’ve similarly done all sorts of alliterative appreciation of an untold amount of other foodstuffs that I’m going to leave you to consider. It’s also interesting to recall that even the most ardent anti-Euro old farts never seemed to direct their ire to French wine or German beer, strangely enough.
So we’re demonstrably not that keen to leave the European party, we just want to be peripheral to it, one may conclude. Participating on our own terms but free to move on to another party somewhere else if we feel like it. Is this about control, then, or ambition? Is it a case of Remaining to keep the safe and mostly agreeable status quo or Leaving because we feel we’re capable of having more fun, with cooler people? It sounds enticing enough but is it as simple as merely being free of Europe – or will it require more of us, and our leaders, than that?
One argument that’s often made in support of the EU is the fact that its schemes benefit deprived areas in member states, fund higher education, support scientific development and regulate cleanliness of beaches. While much of the above could be claimed by naysayers to be costly, interfering, inefficient and exceeding the body’s initial remit, there’s one point that seems never to have been adequately addressed: why? Not so much why should the EU feel the need to concern itself in these areas but how is it even necessary? If every member state was being run properly, each would have granted sufficient priority to the state of deprivation, educational attainment, scientific progress and marine environmental quality. It seems to me that such schemes only exist because of a dereliction on the part of all member states that rely on EU aid – a charge that applies historically to the UK as much as anywhere else. It seems that successive Governments have treated the EU in the same way they view the Lottery – as cash-rich entities that exist simply to relieve its own departments and ministries the burden of having to actually worry about funding necessary improvements to vast swathes of the national resource.
In order to be convinced that we’re better Out than In (because I really believe that we could be), the question really becomes one not of control or even ambition but one of competence. Do I trust a post-Leave Government (of any colour) to increase our trading power, reduce our regulation, control our immigration and ensure that our sink estates, our universities and our beaches are all appropriately resourced? In order to answer that question, we need a little more context…
Referenda (to use the correct Latin plural) are a curious notion. One the one hand, they seem ultra-democratic; allowing the public to decide on a given single issue. What could be more self-determining that that? On the other, they sit uneasily within the usual democratic framework – generally, the idea is that we the people give a mandate to govern us for a term, based on a manifest selection of promises to effect certain changes and then we leave them to it.
Also, parties win and lose elections and those within the winning and losing parties are given (or relieved of) power as a consequence. Candidates are expected to ensure their electioneering is in harmony with the party on whose ticket they are standing, meaning that if they win, they win but if they lose, they can always highlight the areas of their Party’s policies with which they personally disagree to mitigate their failure. In short, there’s nothing terminally discreditable to one’s further career in losing a seat at an election.
In a referendum, it’s different. Politicians are granted that most dangerous of things: a position determined by their ‘conviction’, unencumbered by those controlling bullies, the party whips. Removing partisanship strips out their requirement to be ‘on message’ and therefore makes it a rare test of each politician’s ability to truly align himself or herself with Public Opinion. The upshot is that those who are seen to agree with the Great British Public may thereafter wear their affirmation as a badge of honour and those who misjudge the mood may have nowhere to hide when questioned about their ongoing credibility.
That’s why referenda tend to be so uncommon. Yes they seem all very inclusive and communal but do we really want to have to tell the Government we’ve already elected what we want them to do every five minutes? Do politicians themselves want to subject themselves to the vagaries of so frequently committing their personal views to the public vote, when it’s difficult to make an excuse for being seen to be out of step? No. However nice an idea it seems, to all concerned, the prospect of a referendum is a box left unopened – most of the time. The only times they can’t be avoided are when the issues are so fundamental and generally when the question falls outside of general party political lines. Like now.
That means that there’ll be casualties on whichever side loses. As it’s non-partisan, that means that there’ll be casualties within a Government, a Cabinet, potentially even the office of Prime Minister itself. And that means there’ll be opportunities for those on the winning side to fill those vacancies, wherever they occur. Could that be the real motivation for those who have chosen to oppose the ‘Remain’ campaign? A shit-or-bust gamble to attain higher office, based on alignment to a game-changing shift in the political landscape rather than a commitment to the actual principle itself? Surely it can’t be true that the thing we’ve been talking about all this time is just a sideshow in a wider game to further the ambitions of a small number of string-pulling pro-Leavers. Surely not… You have to wonder…
So, to re-cap: we are where we are with Europe, it could be better, it could have been much worse. We may want more control of our affairs but what are we prepared to give up to get it? Can we really do much better by doing things differently and, crucially, do we have the leadership talent to ensure that we make the most of the opportunity? Does the way we’re being communicated to by our politicians show a disdain for our intelligence to start with – and does any of it really matter anyway if it’s all just a part of a Machiavellian play for power?