I can’t believe that the sun is still shining this morning. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has just voted to leave the European Union. 52% of those voting chose to leave.
There will be pundits with more authority to write on why this happened and on what will, or might happen next, but maybe that does not invalidate my shared thoughts as I struggle to come to terms with what feels to me like an apocalyptic decision. After a decade in politics I had thought that the failure of the Liberal Democrats in coalition would be the nadir of my political experience, but what we have just experienced during EU referendum campaign is far worse. The cause, the course and the outcome have all been depressing, each one worse than the previous. I have almost come to despair of democracy.
The roots of the referendum lie in divisions within the Conservative Party and David Cameron’s attempts to keep it united.
As I have written previously with regard to the Liberal Democrats, all political parties are themselves a coalition of differing views, and there have always been tensions within the Conservative Party. It just so happens that they are so focussed on gaining and retaining power that they have developed a certain discipline that enables them to keep those divisions hidden from view for most of the time. The Tories have always been divided on Europe. Some leaders are more ‘pro’ and some more ‘anti’. The phrase that they used to paper over the differences was ‘eurosceptic’. We can all visualise being sceptical without being opposed to something. We even talk of healthy scepticism. The truth is that some Tories hated the EU and always wanted to leave. Their leaders kept the lid on the discontent in two ways: they criticised the EU in public and they talked vaguely of having a referendum. In the run-up to the 2015 General Election David Cameron decided that the best way to keep his own right wing on board and to fend off the increasing threat from UKIP was to make a firm offer to hold an “in/out” referendum if he was the next Prime Minister.
This may well have been a promise that he thought he would not have to deliver. None of the opinion polls predicted a Conservative majority, and if he were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats again he could always blame them for stopping him having a referendum. But, and here comes the first major blow to the democratic process in the saga, he did win an overall majority. Or did he? Was the election ‘stolen’? Or bought? The funding of British political parties and the electoral system is just one of the things that I believe to be wrong with our democracy, but we do have rules on election expenses and there are widespread allegations that the Conservative Party broke these rules. We know that their campaign focussed heavily on a number of marginal seats, and that the wipe-out of the Liberal Democrats was at least in part due to the intensive campaigning in those seats. The story is still unfolding, but it is possible that the Conservatives do not in fact have a legitimate majority.
And so, to his surprise, David Cameron found that he was Prime Minister again, this time leading a Conservative government. He decided that he had no choice but to deliver his promised referendum. But first he would go through a charade of having tough negotiations with other European nations and come back with some concessions that would enable him to move from a position of relative euroscepticism to being an outright supporter of the EU.
I have seen the rough and tumble of political campaigning, and I have seen rival candidates stretch the truth to its limits, but I have never seen such an ill-tempered, ill-mannered and dishonest campaign. The remain camp engaged in some speculative exaggeration of what might happen if we leave the EU. But the dishonesty exhibited by the Brexit camp was breath-taking. From the claim that we send £350m a week to the EU, and coupled with it the implication that we could spend that money five times over (NHS, Farm subsidy, Regional grants, removing VAT from domestic fuel and Scientific research) to the implication that the whole population of Turkey was likely to flood into the UK we saw an astonishing number of ‘porkies’. Some were challenged by fact-checking web sites or by independent academics, but the Brexit campaigners carried on regardless. The whole situation was exacerbated by the BBC’s famous insistence of ‘balance’. The BBC seemed to think that each time an authoritative statement was made by an independent body, or a letter was published that bore the signature of hundreds of academics, it was necessary for the BBC to bring Farage, Gove, Johnson or Duncan-Smith into the studio to put their case. Their ‘case’ often amounted simply to denying the statement of the experts and repeating one of their sound-bite claims about bringing back sovereignty or faceless bureaucrats. One example of this was when the Michael O’Leary, the outspoken chief executive of Ryan Air, said that because we would lose access to the European open skies agreement air fares would rise. The Brexit response was simply that there is no question of air fares or holidays costing any more.
There were repeated attempts to conflate membership of the EU with the European Court of Human Rights (which was set up by the UK among others long before there even was an EU) and the euro (which is a currency that the UK does not use, and does not give any support to.) But the most inflammatory and dangerous language was used in relation to immigration. Nigel Farage threatened “violence on the streets” if immigration was not curbed. Cameron’s foolish claim that he could lower net migration to “tens of thousands” was thrown back at him, but the Brexit team alternately claimed that they could deliver it themselves and said that they would control migration with a points system that would allow more immigration, not less. It was conveniently ignored that there are already 180,000 immigrants from outside the EU where we already operate a points system, and deceitfully suggested that the UK’s creaky infrastructure was all due to immigrants from the EU. The evidence actually shows that EU migrants contribute more to the treasury than they cost, and as I have repeatedly written here and elsewhere, the problems being experienced by the NHS are the result of UK government policies. Before I leave the subject of immigration I might point out that Jeremy Corbyn proposed financial help for councils who took in significant numbers of immigrants. This statement, like much of what was said by the Labour Leader was conveniently ignored by most of the media, and significantly by the BBC. One might add that the previous Labour government had introduced just such a scheme and it was abolished by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010.
The xenophobic demagogy we heard from the Brexit camp had the effect of permitting anger and hate to bubble up in individuals. The most extreme example of this hate was the awful murder of Jo Cox, but the aggressive and inflammatory language used by politicians had a more general effect of making acceptable, behaviour and language that would not normally be acceptable . I have a friend who was delivering leaflets when a man came charging out of his house and pursued him down the road shouting obscenities and calling him a traitor.
One problem of the whole campaign was its asymmetry. There was, if you like an asymmetry of evidence and an asymmetry of truth, but there was an asymmetry of the whole underlying argument as well. The Remain camp seemed to concentrate on the economic benefits of EU membership to the exclusion of all else. I would regard the economic case as unanswerable, but the Brexit camp did not need to answer it. They appealed almost exclusively to emotions: fear, distrust, dislike of governments generally. Only occasionally did the Remain campaign point out that some of us love being part of Europe, some of us love the diversity and some of us love living at peace with our neighbours.
I shall pause here, and post my thoughts on the outcome later. I do this for two reasons. First, I should acknowledge that my attempts to predict the future may be even more flawed than my attempts to chronicle what has happened and why.
And Second, I need to do something else today apart from thinking about this awful, awful state of affairs. Thank you for staying with me so far, if you have.