My February blog gave 10 reasons I was leaning towards Brexit . Having had the ‘benefit’ of both sides’ campaigns, here are 5 reasons I am now not so sure. And here are some reflections on what the campaign tells us…
1: IS THIS THE BEST WE CAN DO? Both Brexit and Remain’s campaigns have been strident and lacking in civility– mutual abuse is the currency of the day. “What’s new?” you ask. Take a look at the Panorama debate between Tony Benn and Roy Jenkins at the time of the 1975 referendum and you notice that the moderator does not interrupt them or shout them down (contrast Mr Faisal Isalam ) and both Benn and Jenkins allow each other to develop their arguments without interruption before they respond. The responses are often barbed but the courtesy they show each other has been lacking in the 2016 campaign. So yes, that this level of mutual abuse has come to be acceptable is something new. A lesson can be drawn from this whichever side wins the most votes. Political leaders need to re-discover how to listen to each other and how to disagree well. The example being set from the top is poor.
So much politics on TV consists of people talking past each other, ridiculing one another and showing a lack of respect that this is bound to have negative consequences for the country as a whole. The tone of the conversation has become destructive. At best this causes people to turn off and tune out: at worst it provides a model of behaviour which leads nowhere good. Disagreeing well is an art: it requires a measure of grace and humility. Neither has been on display in this campaign.
2: BOTH SIDES’ CAMPAIGNS HAVE BEEN SHALLOW.
Again comparison with the 1975 referendum is telling. Watch any of the speeches in the Oxford Union debate from 1975 (Peter Shore, Ted Heath, Jeremy Thorpe, Barbara Castle and others) and you find the speakers get beyond an argument based solely upon what may allow the UK to be better off financially and/or in terms of immigration control. Both sides present a philosophical basis for their views. Not so today. 2016 has been a campaign of fear by both sides. The result is dis-spiriting rather than inspirational: as captured in this poster (which is directed to the leave campaign but might have been directed to the Remain campaign with equal force).
Politicians on both sides of the debate have failed to tell us what their vision is for England outside Europe (should that happen).
3: IS IT BETTER TO LIVE WITH A DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT THAN TO GIVE UNRESTRAINED POWER TO WESTMINSTER?
This is the question that I can’t resolve. The ‘first past the post’ electoral system has many faults but it delivers direct democracy. There is a chance that when you vote you may ‘kick the rascals out’. The link between the ballot box and the disposal of lawmakers is real. By contrast European elections are like pulling a toilet chain in UK knowing that there is no chance that in Brussels law makers will be flushed out. This lack of accountability matters. Being ruled by unaccountable bureaucrats is not an attractive idea– the lack of a safety valve (being able to vote a government out) is potentially dangerous and can lead to violence such as the rioting we have seen in Greece recently.
But here’s the rub: the quality of the Party leaders as demonstrated in this campaign on both sides of the Brexit debate is no more attractive than the idea of rule by unaccountable bureaucrats. It is not as if we have statesmen or stateswomen who would be capable of delivering a vision for this country which inspires respect and hope, if only they were not held back by a Brussels machine. What would our politicians do if un-tethered from the EU that they could not do now from Westminster if they so wished?
My head tells me that the referendum is so momentous that one should ignore short term factors such as the quality of the politicians who would be in power if Brexit won. But I am conflicted, my heart is telling me to watch out. There is a wealth of evidence that Boris Johnson, amusing though he is, cannot and should not be trusted. Listen to the famous Car Crash interview and read the article in the Spectator under the title “Boris Johnson: everything about you is phoney”. The idea of this man in No 10 would be no laughing matter. See also the comments of Martin Fletcher , a journalist with first hand experience of working alongside Boris.
I am disgusted by the way the Brexit camp has exploited fears of uncontrolled immigration. This UKIP poster is a disgrace. It is racist and intended to create fear of refugees. This, more than anything else, propels me toward Remain, or it would do if I could have confidence that the EU would provide a better solution to the problem of our time: the Refugee crisis.
4. WANTED HOME AND ABROAD: POLITICIANS OF STATURE.
It is often said that global problems should be addressed with global solutions. Many of today’s problems should, in theory, be more effectively addressed if tackled by the EU than by the UK alone. What is hardly ever said is that this theory does not deliver unless the individual nations who are coming together are willing to subordinate their national interests for the greater good. It requires statesmanship to lead a nation in this way and politicians of stature are in short supply. This hints at a greater problem: could it be that the need for government and opposition to keep in tune with the electorate has led to them following instant polls and social media with the result that these fashion government policy? This makes long-term planning impossible and leads to policies which lack consistency, let alone ideological coherence. Too often, Ministers appear like salesmen conducting a PR blitz, rather than people who genuinely believe in what they are doing and who are acting from principle. ‘In’ or ‘Out’ these problems will remain to be addressed.
If ever there was a problem which demands a global solution it is the problem of how to help today’s refugees. Yet now that the nations of Europe should be coming together, EU country after EU country has put up barbed wire fences and adopted policies designed to keep refugees as far away as possible. I have written elsewhere about this. It is relevant to this blog because the EU is not only failing to solve this problem: it may even be making it worse. See the General Secretary of Médecins Sans Frontières ‘ announcement that it will no longer accept funds from the EU and Member States in opposition to their damaging deterrence policies and continued attempts to push people and their suffering away from European shores.
5. BINARY CHOICES ARE BINDING BUT BLINDING.
Come Thursday we are presented with a stark choice: ‘in’ or ‘out’. Normally one can weigh two factors against each other but in this referendum we are forced to choose between things which can’t be weighed against each other because neither is better than the other– they are different in kind from each other. For example the possibility of financial security cannot be weighted against the ability to hold law makers to account via the ballot box. Little wonder that so many of us are confused and undecided how to vote on Thursday.
WHATEVER THE REFERENDUM RESULT WE NEED TO WORK TOGETHER TO FIND A BETTER WAY TO DO POLITICS.
Parliament was re-called this week to give thanks for the life of Jo Cox. A life lived in the service of others less privileged than herself. Compare that with the emptiness of the campaigning on both sides. Focusing almost exclusively upon whether UK plc will be financially better off in or out gives the impression that a person’s life consists in the abundance of his possessions. It doesn’t. However important financial security may be it are not the whole story. Focusing almost exclusively upon immigration is also to sell us short. Even if you could solve the numbers question that would not cure the nation’s ills or lead to a nation at peace with itself. Where is the big picture? What are the ideals for which the UK now stands? What contribution does the UK see itself making to the world? Europe has enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace: how do we hope to help the unprecedented numbers of people who have not been so fortunate, but rather have been made homeless by war and anarchy? How do we bring people together within the UK and reverse the increasingly polarised divisions in our society? It is telling that we have heard not a word about these issues in this campaign.