Sunday, 19 June 2016

Referendum - a Disaster on Legs

The EU Referendum Campaign has been a disaster on legs, for a number of reasons.

First, because it was called for all the wrong reasons. David Cameron,seeking to deal with a split in the Conservative Party, made a pledge in the manifesto to hold an in/out referendum by the end of 2017. "We will legislate in the first session of the next Parliament for an in-out referendum to be held on Britain’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017. We will negotiate a new settlement for Britain in the EU. And then we will ask the British people whether they want to stay in on this basis, or leave. We will honour the result of the referendum, whatever the outcome." He's fulfilled that pledge - which is why we are where we are. Personally, I don't believe that a referendum is consonant with our understanding of Parliamentary democracy. We elect a government to govern. Referenda inevitably ask simplistic questions about issues that are not susceptible of yes/no answers without a huge amount of explanation of the complexity of the question. They are no way for a society to make decisions.

Two consequences follow.

(1) The bald promise to hold a referendum set out above has been implemented with no real thinking through of the consequences if there is a vote to leave. Cameron made a promise - but there is no plan for what happens on 24th June if we vote to leave.

(2) The referendum has lit the blue touchpaper on a "debate" which is almost entirely undefined in its scope. As we have seen over the past weeks, everything and anything can be dragged into the campaign - which has been used by many as a proxy for every grievance they might have about politics and the political process.

So, we have been in a game with no game plan and no rules of conduct.

What has happened is detrimental to politics and the political process. Both sides have used misleading figures and information to conduct an argument that has been more like a childish spat in the playground than a measured examination of the issues. The electorate have been fed with ever more cooked statistics and exaggeration. It's virtually impossible for the average voter to discover some facts. There are a few places one can go:

Professor Michael Dougan from Liverpool University on the legal position (though he is probably a little too calm in skating over the position and accountability of the EU Commissioners).

On the figures that are traded with puzzling discrepancy, the BBC's excellent More or Less is available as a podcast here:

And Full Fact website also has some helpful disentangling

I'd recommend a good look at any of this stuff before you make up your mind which way to vote.

There's a rather worrying implication for all of us from the experience of the debate thus far. It strikes at the heart of our democratic institutions. Parliament seems not to realise how much most people distrust politicians at Westminster. They still haven't got that, although there my be a theoretical commitment to Parliamentary democracy among the populace at large, people's experience of it as expressed in the Westminster Village is that they find it puerile (PMQs), out of touch, and nowhere near the experience of their real lives.

This is brought into relief in the sadness and shock expressed at the murder of Jo Cox MP. Note the almost universal expressions of affection, respect, and admiration for a woman who was deeply committed to justice and campaigning for a better world, and was, by all accounts, a superb constituency MP. And there's the rub. People value greatly the experience they have of their individual local MPs. I can't speak too highly of those from both Conservative and Labour Parties who serve my Episcopal Area here in NW London. But the collective voice and the antics of the House of Commons is something else. It's not liked, it's not respected, and it does itself no favours. In the midst of that deep distrust of our democratic institutions, we lob a time bomb - a referendum which allows all that distrust to be expressed, exacerbated by a free-for-all without rules in the social media and in the press. Result - a campaign where fear, misrepresentation, and paranoia become the currency of public discourse.

There are only a few days to go before we vote. I'm completely unconvinced by the Leave Campaign and will be voting to Remain. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Leave is based on a romantic attachment to a UK that is long gone. We made our decision back in 1975 to throw in our lot with Europe (I voted against at the time), but having made that commitment, our economic and social future is inextricably bound into the interdependence we have with our neighbours and friends. The Leave Campaign seeks to evoke a "Britain is great on its own" approach which simply isn't real.

2. The EU, though it is still in need of serious reform (and David Cameron's "renegotiation" achieved very little in this regard) is important for progressive and liberal political values. Leave is backed by too many people whose approach is retrograde and reactionary - and who would seek to take our society backwards, not forwards. As an example of the issues that Brexit would divert us away from, have a look at the website of the Global Justice Forum.

3. Of course, I'm a Christian. Christians find themselves on both sides of this debate. But my Christian faith leads me to be internationalist and not nationalistic, progressive and not reactionary, worshipping and following a God of the future. It also predisposes me to want justice for the refugee, the orphan and the deprived, and makes me deeply suspicious of the motives and policies of those who (for example) want us to leave in order to control immigration (which has been used disproportionately as a fear factor in this referendum).

4. Finally, as is well known, I am no supporter of the Conservative Party. But I see among those who are arguing for us to Vote Leave a collection of right-wing neo-liberals who, if they take power in place of David Cameron will take us further into the policies of free-market experimental economic and social policies that are already damaging our country - and particularly the poor and vulnerable. Unfettered and unmediated by the more socially cohesive members of the Conservative Party, and in fief to UKIP, they will march us down an isolationist road from which there will be no turning back.

The only way to prevent this nightmare scenario is to vote Remain.


  1. Thanks for resources. I suspect DC wanted to time it early and get it over with early, knowing that Nationalistic sentiment would only grow in his own party as it hung over them. Thus this silly exercise launched with no credible view of what "out" actually meant. He may have believed that would clinch the matter and see off what John Major called "the shits" in the Tory party. Unfortunately Brexit is an affair of the heart and the tribal Amygdala not the brain. Therefore holding the thing at all opens up the nightmare scenario of having to come up with something following an "out" vote...

  2. Thankyou for putting words to my thoughts.

  3. Very clearly stated - thank you- I specially like point 1 above. There is an underlying arrogance about the idea that British equals best. As in 'we have the best Health Service in the world' -no we don't! 'We have the best education in the world' -no we don't! People around the world are already bemused by this arrogance, and I think we would find ourselves very isolated, and not just financially were we to vote 'out'

  4. The notion that sovereignty is about having the right to make our own decisions is about as meaningful as saying that I have the right to decide to buy ten Rolls Royce cars - yes, I have that right but I totally lack the ability. A Brexit UK may have the right to decide its own rules and regulations but will almost entirely lack the ability in an inevitable global economy and political world.

  5. I think your comment that we respect our individual MPs but not the House of Commons is key here. Our adversarial system is not helpful, emphasised as it is by tribal loyalty expressed in mindless, braying schoolboy behaviour where the speaker of one's own side is affirmed with claps, childish grins and heavy nodding, whereas the other side is boo'd, laughed at and summarily dismissed as wrong.
    Watching that you would never guess that you are watching a selection of our brightest people earnestly engaged in finding solutions to the complex problems of the day.
    That urgently needs to change.

  6. When I listen to most of the out campaigners I am forcibly reminded (as a historian) of jingoistic speeches made in the 19C which were largely incorrect even then. It makes me fear for the progress that has been made for rights of anyone not white, male, non-disabled and educated privately. Surely as a country and a nominally Christian one at that we want to be better than the past?

  7. When I listen to most of the out campaigners I am forcibly reminded (as a historian) of jingoistic speeches made in the 19C which were largely incorrect even then. It makes me fear for the progress that has been made for rights of anyone not white, male, non-disabled and educated privately. Surely as a country and a nominally Christian one at that we want to be better than the past?

  8. I think the initial analysis is incorrect, public pressure for a referendum was going to destroy the conservative vote which is why DC caved in. As it happened it was probably eurosceptic labour voters who got him through the door.

    Secondly I think Prof Dougan's independence is rather debatable when you explore the second part of his popular title.

    Whilst the values stated to take the christian "high ground" are right and true they are no less applicable to our own families and the older generation who have fought for and paid for social care of diminishing standards and availability.

  9. I totally respect your views on this. But may I put the other side of the argument, since as you pointed out the politicians are not really having a proper grown-up debate about this:

    1. I do not believe anyone considering Leave is saying we should go at it alone. But there are many thriving economies who are independent, or less dependent, on the EU who are doing well. It is not as black and white as - if we leave we are isolationist, if we remain we are internationalist.

    2. The EU has been very important for liberal and progressive values in the past. However it appears to be currently carrying a neoliberal and pro-austerity agenda, which frightens me. It's polices on crushing the Greek economy last year, how its economic policies have resulted in high unemployment figures in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece, and its pursuit of the TTIP which is pro-big business to the extent it allows big businesses to sue countries in secret courts if we ever touch their profits - these are all ideas firmly entrenched in the right wing of the government.

    3. The problem with the EU is, it is more removed democratically than our own politicians. So whilst the EU have swung to the right dramatically (some argue even further right than the Tory party), who do we petition to reverse this? Who is our elected official in the EU Commission who initiate all legislation and negotiate our treaties?

    4. I agree there is a risk that after leaving, the Conservative party may swing to the right. But that is the beauty of our democracy. In 2020, we can vote them out. And they know it. They will be foolish to therefore swing to the right. But even if they are so foolish to do so, we can vote them out in 2020. We cannot vote the EU / EU Commission out again.

    5. I have never understood the "Stay In to Reform it" argument. David Cameron went to Brussels to say, if you don't give us this, I will take the country away. Brussels then gave us precious little. This vote is therefore about whether we accept that that Reform was sufficient. Once we stay in, Brussels and David Cameron can legitimately argue that the British Public was satisfied with the Reform, and no further Reform is necessary to prevent another Brexit.

    6. On the topic of reform - I have also never understood why those arguing to Remain thinks we can Reform the EU, but not Reform UKIP, or the Gove / Johnson / Farage coalition. Reality is, they are both difficult to Reform. But with the latter - we can vote them out soon. And that is why they are more accountable to us than the EU.

    7. As for your final point, I think I've already dealt with. The EU has always been an experiment on mass European capitalism. It is about big business, big corporations, lobbying and free market over the good of the poor. I really don't understand how voting for the EU helps the poor at all.

    Let the debates begin!