What the EU referendum says about our democracy

I campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU, and I’m extremely upset that we voted to leave. But the fact of leaving isn’t the thing that’s most depressing: far worse is what it has told me about our democracy. Successful Leave campaigners should be every bit as worried as I am about some of the things I’m about to discuss.

The first thing that alarms me is the way the referendum was allowed to operate. Anyone on either side of the argument was able to make any statement, however outlandish, however false, with total impunity. After a parliamentary or local government election, voters can punish a false campaign promise by voting against the person who makes it (or at least against their party) at future elections. In the referendum, campaigners could tell whatever lies they wanted to in the knowledge that all they had to do was to get 50.00001% of the votes on the day, and that once that was over, nothing else mattered.

Both sides indulged in outrageously indefensible rhetoric. I happen to think that the Leave side’s was particularly egregious, but that’s not the point: the problem is that a major decision that will affect our country for decades and maybe more was made after a campaign characterised by a tissue of lies.

I’m also disturbed by the referendum’s reduction of the highly complex matter of our relationship with Europe to a single In/Out question, without in any way defining what “Out” meant. Are we talking about “the Norwegian Solution” of remaining in the free trade agreement while continuing to comply with EU regulations? The “Swiss solution” of continuing to contribute to the EU budget? Or a total withdrawal from the free trade zone? Whichever of these options is chosen, the Prime Minister who implements Brexit risks a huge backlash from whichever part of the leave constituency had assumed either (a) we’re going to have fewer rules from Brussels, (b) we can stop contributing to the EU budget or (c) we can continue to be in the free trade block. Because truly, if anyone thinks we’re so important to the EU that they will continue to grant all of our former privileges while releasing us from all of the rules an obligations, they are living in a delusive state. All this means that far from resolving the EU debate, this referendum has merely fired its starting gun.

Why was it constitutionally OK for a political party in government to propose such a simplistic referendum? Of the reasons for doing so, it is now reasonably clear that (a) Cameron had no intention of putting out EU membership at risk and thought he was taking a safe bet; (b) the principal intent was to resolve tensions within the Conservative party and (c) Cameron and his aides didn’t think the electorate were intelligent enough to understand a more nuanced set of questions (I’m guessing on this last one, admittedly, but I think it’s a fairly safe guess). I’m afraid I don’t buy the idea that Cameron called the referendum because he genuinely believed that “the people deserved their say”: I’ve never yet seen a referendum called for that reason and I don’t expect to.

Having spoken to a lot of people in the days leading up to June 23rd, I don’t think the majority of voters made a serious attempt to research and understand the facts. The most intelligent conversation I had with a probable Leave voter was with a doctor of African extraction who is deeply unhappy with EU policy in Africa, which she had checked out in a great deal of detail. Every other conversation showed rampant confirmation bias: people were simply not interested even in discussing their reasons for voting in detail and certainly didn’t want to understand the views of anyone on the opposing side.

One of the important arguments on the Leave side is the idea that outside the EU, we can regain total control of our democratic process. But that’s small comfort when you see the immediate effect of the referendum on that process. The first thing that is going to happen is that from around October, the country will be run for close to four years by an unelected Prime Minister – and probably, in the circumstances, by a Prime Minister of a very different complexion from the one who we voted for a year ago. How was it OK for Cameron to omit to mention that he would be resigning if he lost the referendum?

Early on Friday, I was pretty much in the #AshamedToBeBritish camp, living in the wonderful, open city that London is, but surrounded by a country full of racists. I’ve calmed down from that view, but I still fear greatly that most people who voted leave (not all, of course) did so because they were looking for someone to blame for twenty years of stagnant disposable incomes and ever reducing job opportunities. And the easiest people to blame were “everyone except us” – the immigrants and the foreigners. How much easier to blame a Brussels bureaucrat than to accept that we’ve lagged the world in productivity improvements, that a rash of people got into debt they couldn’t afford, or that the Blairite expansion of university places wasn’t fundable without either increasing taxes or making the students pay for it.

Indulging in arbitrary blame without being prepared to debate the facts isn’t a good way to make important decisions. Allowing a party’s internal issues to have such a huge and immediate impact on our future is worrying. So is having an unelected Prime Minister at what will now be a critical moment in history. And our permitting of demagogues – racist or otherwise – to tell a pack of lies with impunity is the scariest of all.





3 thoughts on “What the EU referendum says about our democracy

  1. David, much as it’s galling to see Farage strutting and gloating, the country did vote in the Conservatives with a mandate to hold an in/out referendum. And our system of government gives the party with a majority in parliament absolute power to do what they like. It has always been thus ………

    I did vote remain despite growing unease at the state of the EU and the direction of travel. Cameroon got no concessions out of the EU on freedom of movement thus forcing him to hold a referendum as promised. Britain did not adopt the Euro and is not party to the Schengen agreement – so it was reasonable to assume that freedom of movement was another area where concessions could be had.

    Many that voted Leave did so out of bigotry. But it would be wrong to label everyone who voted leave as racist. An influx of a million plus workers within a period of 10 years has surely depressed wages and denied jobs to many locals.

    It was reasonable for the steelworkers in Redcar to expect that the EU would protect their jobs from cheap subsidised steel from China. This is the least you would expect from a trading bloc. I for one will not blame the redundant steel workers if they saw little point in an EU that could not deliver this and went on to vote Leave.

    Many that voted Leave did not do so because they blamed foreigners for everything but because increasing inequality has left them disadvantaged and broken. Voting Leave was the only way they had of giving the ruling elite (with the power to change things) a good kicking.

    Lets hope that we see a statesman emerge from this current mess.



  2. Much of what you say is plausible, particularly the theory that since the “London metropolitan toffs” were all in favour of Remain, that a vote for Leave was a way of giving them a good kicking. But that’s exactly my constitutional point – it’s really not a great basis on which to make crucial decisions on complex issues that are well nigh impossible to reverse. The immediate effect is that the steelworkers in Redcar are going to be joined on the dole by an awful lot of people as the effect on the pound generates inflation, the effect on the markets causes lay-offs, and our budgets get tightened by the increase in interest on our excessive national debt resulting from the all too predictable credit downgrades. The “good kicking” is going to be an expensive one.

    Amen to your hope that we get a statesman. So far, the only person to have impressed me is Sadiq Khan, and he’s not in the running just yet.


  3. We have just seen a peasants revolt – and revolutionaries do not always think of the consequences.

    It’s a shame that Cameroon was so sure of winning that he agreed to a simple majority to vote in major constitutional change. Its conventional for this to be set at a 60 or even 70% threshold to change the status quo. I thought this at the time of the Scottish referendum too.

    He has played fast and loose with the country’s future. He was lucky in the case of Scotland – not so lucky now. History will not treat him kindly. I think the term is ‘a busted flush’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s