Follow us on:   

Brexit or Remain, the UK referendum is changing the country
June 18, 2016, 10:50 am

On a recent visit to Paris almost everyone I met asked me the same question: “Are you British insane? Are you really going to vote to leave the European Union?”

Based on the most recent polls, despite the deep scepticism of those same surveys after the last General Election, I could only answer: “It looks that way.”

Cue disbelieving looks, gasps and snorts of Gallic derision, often followed by the words: “You can always come and live here.”

It’s a tempting prospect, especially given the fact that the social and political discourse about the future of the UK has, during the campaign, descended into the gutter, with the supporters of Brexit using the tactics of Nazi and Soviet propagandists to create a dark mood of distrust and, in some cases, pure hate.

It is this toxic atmosphere which many believe led to a UK member of Parliament, Jo Cox, being gunned down and stabbed to death as she arrived for an open public constituency meeting.

While a suspect has been arrested, the police have confirmed that right-wing extremism is considered to be one of the motives for the attack – an eyewitness told the BBC that the attacker shouted about putting “Britain first” during the assault, allegations which are now under investigation.

During his first appearance in court, the man charged with her murder, 52 year-old Thomas Mair, gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The day after the attack, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said it was “the well of hatred that killed her,” while The Guardian reported that the police were investigating a “white supremacist group” who posted the message “only 649 MPs to go” on Twitter. It is a story that has overshadowed the referendum campaign, which was subsequently suspended for several days.

But the killing of Jo Cox has thrown the deeply disturbing and confrontational nature of this campaign into sharp relief, with some now asking whether we will ever recover from the societal splits that have been created, and others suggesting the referendum should be called off as a mark of respect.

As one commentator put it: “When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.”

A Churchill legacy no more?

In the interests of full disclosure, I am now just an interested, but increasingly depressed, observer – I have already voted by post, and I voted to stay in, not because I like the EU – I think there is an awful lot wrong with it and that is in desperate need of reform – but because all the evidence pointed to a conclusion that everyone, especially the generations of tomorrow, would be better off staying together to deal with these issues collectively, especially in a world that is becoming rapidly globalised by technology.

There was also the consideration that leaving the EU would immediately stop the UK from helping to bring about the very reform the organisation needs, and in my view, the British have never run away from a fight in the past.

The fact that a “United States of Europe” was was first suggested in 1931 by a British civil servant, Arthur Salter, and supported by wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, while its first incarnation, the European Coal and Steel Community was the result of work by the French diplomat Jean Monnet, a close friend of Salter’s, in the 1950s has largely gone unmentioned, as have the benefits that EU membership brings to the UK, the jobs and infrastructure projects it supports and the peace that has been enjoyed for the last 80 years.

Likewise the contribution that the UK has made to shaping the debate in the EU about worker’s rights, equality and social justice or the fact that it was Britain that shaped the Convention on Human Rights and got everyone in the EU to share those ideals.

One of the major frustrations of this referendum campaign to date is the lack of reasoned, sensible and intelligent debate about any of these issues.

The campaigning has turned traditional British political viewpoints on their heads, so rapacious free marketeers who supported the privatisation of the NHS, or charging people to use it, have suddenly undergone a Damascene conversion, literally overnight, to become the health service’s best friends, claiming that money diverted from paying for EU membership would immediately be used to save everything from the NHS to the British fishing industry – an impressive spending bucket list which far outstrips the actual amounts concerned.

Sadly, as a result of the increasingly exaggerated claims being made, the Remain camp were immediately, and rather stupidly, sucked into this whirlpool of witlessness, rather than presenting a positive case for the EU.

This resulted in the campaign discourse quickly becoming a toxic mix of venomous name-calling and gainsaying, the kind of angry, disillusioned and borderline racist behaviour that we currently associate more with a Donald Trump rally than a British political event.

Much of this has been driven by those with an axe to grind, whether it be the right-wing politicians who have long been sceptical about the perceived lack of control engendered by membership of the EU, to the owners of many British newspapers who have their own political agendas, mainly to protect their wealth from European interference, and who are gleefully playing British voters like a violin to get the so-called “Little Englanders” to do their bidding for them.

This reductio ad absurdum of the political debate means that many salient facts are going unreported, hidden in the cacophony of cat-calls and dog whistle talking points about immigration and its impact on British society, many of which are provably false and verging on racial hatred.

What is so dispiriting is that many of the issues of immigration are, in reality, created by the flow of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, people saving their families from the murderous death cults of Da’esh and Al Shabaab, all of which were caused by Western misadventures in the Middle East, the kind of out-of-date, arrogant colonialism that many people forget made Britain ‘Great’ in the first place.

However, those campaigning for the Remain side have not covered themselves in glory; instead they have done little more than pour petrol on the flames by lining up a series of experts to outline the doomsday scenarios about what would happen if Britain left the EU, which have been simply (and ironically) dismissed by the Brexit campaigners as “Project Fear”.

Rather than create a campaign based on advancing positive arguments, the Remain campaign have fallen into the trap of aping the negative propaganda which is the bedrock of the Leave campaign, which has simply polarised the debate and deterred ordinary voters from getting involved.

Nowhere is this more true than on social media, where every day has seen the cyber-activists on both sides involved in a virtual bare-knuckle fist fight, with posts, pictures and videos reinforcing their respective messages, and then responding with bile and bellicosity to those put up by their opponents.

As a result, both campaigns have fallen into disrepute, sensible political discourse is a rarity, and trust in politics is at an all time low.

This was summed up in a recent YouGov survey which showed the those who were in favour of leaving did not trust politicians, did not trust newspaper journalists and did not trust the experts; this also suggests that anyone who supports Brexit will simply dismiss this article as well.

In short, the only people they now trust are those who they follow on social media, or socially in their own lives; friend, the friended and the followed, all of whom are chosen because they only affirm that person’s own world views, creating a bubble of ignorance driven largely by base instinct and gut feelings.

Some now question whether that is an appropriate way for a democracy to be run; Richard Dawkins, in an article for Prospect magazine said: “I, and most other people, don’t have the time or the experience to do our due diligence on the highly complex economic and social issues facing our country in, or out of, Europe. That’s why we vote for our Member of Parliament, who is paid a good salary to debate such matters on our behalf, and vote on them. The European Union referendum, like the one on Scottish independence, should never have been called.”

Generations of anger

Politician's folly: Did Cameron make a monumental mistake in calling for a referendum? [Xinhua]

Politician’s folly: Did Cameron make a monumental mistake in calling for a referendum? [Xinhua]

What is troubling is that the UK is not alone: we’re seeing the same in the US, and in many other European countries, where right-wing politicians are tapping into the anger of generations of working and middle class voters who feel that the establishment, the elite, the political classes have largely ignored them and their plight.

This has been summed up by many UK and American voters who feel angry and who feel that through the EU referendum, or through Donald Trump’s candidacy, that this is the first opportunity they have had to really make a change to the direction their country is taking, and that, for once, their views count. “Every time I’ve voted, nothing ever gets done,” is how one voter put it in a video piece by the Guardian.

Politicians all over the world should take note: Symptoms of the cancer of democratic disengagement are already being seen in other parts of Europe, with the far right becoming the protest vote of choice in Austria, Hungary, Germany and France; its effects are being felt in Brazil and South Africa.

Back in the UK, the claim that the inhabitants of the Westminster bubble are so out-of-touch is something they reject, but the fact that they decided to go for a referendum in such a febrile, dysfunctional political atmosphere of distrust and hate rather suggests that they were, simply put, out-of-touch.

It also raises questions about David Cameron’s legacy, and his competence, after calling a referendum which started out as an attempt to try and deal with a perceived short-term threat within his own party and from the rise of UKIP.

The offer of an “in-out referendum” was an act of political desperation from a coalition prime minister who knew an election was coming and needed to hold on to potential UKIP voters and placate the Eurosceptic right-wing of his own party. At the time the polls suggested another coalition, which, Cameron reckoned, meant that the pro-European Liberal Democrats would want a referendum off the agenda as a price for their continued support.

Cameron never expected that the Conservatives would win an outright majority on May 7, 2015, and to be honest, neither did anyone else; but it also meant that he would have to make good on his promise to hold that referendum.

Dawkins suggests this is incompetence of the highest order: “To call a referendum on a matter as important and fraught with complicated and intricate detail as EU membership was an act of monstrous irresponsibility: the desperate throw of a short-term chance, running scared before the UKIP tendency within his own party.”

The Scottish referendum in 2014 did not make the issue go away; if anything the anger after the result has become worse and more deep-rooted as the politicians have seemingly continued with business as usual despite a large proportion of the population clearly demonstrating at the ballot box that they wanted change.

Whatever the result on June 23, what is certain is that this is one short-term election promise that may haunt Westminster, and the whole of the UK, for decades to come.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Anti-Spam * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.