There’s a lot of hot air around about the what and how of this referendum – what it might cost us to leave or stay in the EU and how many migrants might or might not flood the country but we seem to have forgotten the why.
That might be because nobody is telling us! So, let’s be clear, this referendum is taking place because some conservative MPs and party members have never accepted the decision to join the EU which was arrived at politically and democratically. This relatively small group has threatened to split the Conservative party on more than one occasion so the Cameron strategy shared by many in the middle of the party has been to promise a put up or shut up referendum. In return for that promise, which created an interim truce, an apparently united Conservative party kept its divisions under wraps and won the last election.
That promise was a mistake because, first of all, this should have been a political decision. We elect politicians to act in the national interest and in the clear understanding of their views and a parliamentary vote, which would have been won overwhelmingly by the remain camp, would have solved any possible national problem even if not the Conservative party one. It would even make more sense to have a general election now in the light of the understanding that the next Parliament would take that vote rather than to have a referendum on this issue.
That is not to say that a referendum is a bad thing as a genuine indicator of public opinion. I wouldn’t mind one on drug legalisation or the abolition of the monarchy which are social issues and there is a genuine social divide. It wouldn’t matter who won but it would get the nation talking politically and that can’t be bad. In contrast, this one simply allows people to realise that they have no idea.
Part of the reason for this is that should we remain or should we leave is a pointless question. We are in Europe geographically and the fact is that we are actually part of its politics. We’re not dithering on its borders and in time we will become a democratically governable and independent entity within the European structure. What’s wrong with that? We might even be there already.
We joined in the interests of peace, mutual trade and prosperity and to put Europe on a mutual par with the superpowers and, in general, that has worked in everyone’s interests. We also joined because we wanted to and we committed the nation to the collaborative endeavour.
This is worth saying because the subtext of the current debate is that the electorate have forgotten that and operate at a pretty low level. That disenfranchises a lot of people who think they are above this kind of catcalling. All this froth about the pound in your pocket and the immigrant floods is polemical and designed to distract people from the fact that we are already there and, really, there isn’t anything much to talk about. We live in Europe, full stop. We didn’t need a vote to stay when we weren’t thinking of going anywhere and that leaves a lot of people uninvolved.
Some people are trying to make that an issue for the Labour Party but remember that this is a Conservative party argument and always has been. It has been rewarding to see Labour and the unions constantly repeating the same message about what we currently get from being in Europe and shameful to see conservatives talking up race issues. If you think Labour hasn’t said enough or should have shared a platform with somebody it is worth remembering that the interventions have been there but aren’t newsworthy.
That’s another issue in this referendum. Large sections of the press are fundamentally anti-European so, while people differ about who can say what and is this leaflet or that leaflet distribution acceptable, the newspapers are pouring out a torrent of political rhetoric to millions of people. Even when you know the individual story is nonsense, the constant drip of bile affects people.
The defections of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove derailed the Cameron strategy in this campaign. If we vote to remain, this group is set on overthrowing him and moving the party further to the right whatever happens. And, if we vote to leave the future is catastrophic with the existing state underpinnings pulled away in the interests of greed, perceived self interest, flag waving and intolerance. As we vote to remain, or stay as I would prefer, we should be clear about who got us into this mess even as we encourage everyone to vote.