Mark Twain, and possibly Benjamin Disraeli before him, opined that politics – by which I assume he meant political campaigning – is all about lies, damn lies and statistics. Many a true word is spoken in satire, and to that I would add: politicians’ fragile promises.
There were certainly plenty of them flying around during the recent EU referendum. Well, on the Remain side exaggerations, sometimes, often quoting improbably precise statistics, of the dire economic consequences of leaving (although the many economists and business leaders paraded presumably had no ideological axe to grind and were being comparatively objective).
But on the Leave side, as the referendum approached, increasingly cynical inducements appeared, such as seductively quoting (and promptly dropping again after the leave result was secured) the misleading gross weekly payment to the EU of £350 million, which would, hey presto, be recycled into the NHS. And the negative lies too; the scare stories about the inundation of 72 million Turkish economic migrants who would immediately flock over here, although in reality Turkey won’t be joining the EU any time in the foreseeable future.
And the xenophobia-inducing question of general non-EU migration, conflating it with freedom of movement within the EU, which in fact is already severely (and sometimes inhumanely) controlled anyway, in some cases to the cruel detriment of family life, as I discovered in researching my novel The Flautist. Many British people who currently live happily in Europe, and Europeans living in Britain, are now deeply worried about their residency status. Brexit politicians are now hurrying to reassure us that existing European nationals living in the UK will be able to remain, and they will demand (arrogantly, as if Britain now has any great moral authority to dictate terms) that expat Brits be allowed to remain in mainland Europe too. That may be all well and good, but what about the future: in scenarios for example where a British person falls in love with a European and they want, obviously, to set up home together; possibly marry? Would Britain’s wonderful new isolationism prevent that?
Quite apart from the despicable hate crime from a minority that’s been unleashed because these mindless bigots now feel their hate has been given legitimacy? And not to mention the deliberate muddying of the waters by bringing refugees (of whom very few are given shelter by a largely unwelcoming Britain anyway) into it, as Nigel Farage knew perfectly well when he shamelessly posed in front of his infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster.
But after all those many, increasingly tedious weeks of campaigning, ‘the people of Britain have spoken’, apparently. Hardly decisively though. Much of the right and all of the far-right of the political spectrum, and some on the hard left too, and the majority (yours truly being an exception) of older people, and many of the left-behind-by-austerity poor, who wanted – not unreasonably – to protest against a seemingly uncaring Establishment, have, we’re told, given the government a ‘mandate’ to leave the EU. Um, well, it depends on how you define ‘mandate’. And how you do the sums. Yes, in crude simple majoritarian terms, 52% for leaving against 48% for staying is democratically decisive on the face of it. But surely, for a huge decision like this, which has long-term and profound ramifications, much more so than a routine general election within the normal five-year electoral cycle, a more sophisticated voting system, which gave one side or the other a significant and substantial majority was called for. Otherwise, the status quo should obtain, regardless of which side a slender majority favoured. There was a mere 3.8% difference between the votes, which in every day, common-sense terms is virtually a split down the middle. The result is, it’s left the nearly half of those who voted and ‘lost’ feeling very unhappy and disenfranchised indeed.
It’s produced a huge rift; pitted Europhile against Europhobe; generation against generation; often, sadly (including in my case) division and acrimony within families. It’s probably precipitated Scotland’s final secession from the UK and perhaps, worryingly, Northern Ireland, with it’s terrible history of sectarian bloodshed, too. What if the peace process now unravels, with consequences too horrific to contemplate?
So how would a referendum have been better run, giving a clearer, more decisive result? Well, arguably, on an issue as important as this (in a general election you can, after all, always vote for the other lot in five years’ time) the votes should be considered (to a greater extent, anyway) as proportions of the total potential vote, as if everyone had an opinion – or had been required to vote, as in Australia. The turnout for the referendum was 72%. So 52% of that equates to just 37% of the 44 million eligible voters who positively voted to leave. It’s a not unreasonable assumption to make that of the 28% who didn’t vote, few felt strongly and positively in favour of leaving, otherwise they would have used their vote to help secure it. So saying it like that, 37% is hardly a meaningful mandate.
The eminent and thoughtful philosopher A C Grayling takes the view (and has written to all Members of Parliament telling them so) that the referendum, far from being a decisive expression of the will of the people, with its simplistic conditions and slim majority, is not an adequate ground for the UK to leave the EU. He points out that in most jurisdictions, major change like this requires a supermajority (for example, at least 60% of the vote on a minimum 75% turnout) to trigger it; not a simple and, as in this case, slender one with a difference of only 3.8%. This is so in the USA for matters of constitutional importance, and certainly so for the world leader in referendum voting, Switzerland. He points out that referendums are pretty crude methods of determining the public will and legislating (imagine if profound matters, like for instance the UK wanting to restore capital punishment were settled by referendums under the dubious influence of the tabloid press; it doesn’t bear thinking about). In his view, if referendums are a poor way of deciding general, sometimes complicated policy, they certainly are of deciding nuanced, highly technical, deeply complex and momentous issues like membership of the EU.
I part company with the learned professor somewhat though in his contention that the referendum was really only advisory (although it might have been in a technical sense) and it should be entirely up to elected representatives in Parliament to decide, ignoring the people’s opinion if it so wished. Good luck with that idea! Yes, Parliament should be sovereign, however much some of us dislike the current and soon-to-be-new governments, but imagine the furore if it was seen to be riding roughshod over the will of the people.
But his really compelling argument is that a clear majority of young people voted in favour of remaining. It’s their futures which will be most affected and old people’s the least. We can’t on the one hand grumble about their apathy about politics and on the other be surprised when, having voted, they found their point of view overridden and dismissed by their ‘elders and betters’ and feel deeply cynical and disillusioned. On the other hand, if more youngsters had used their vote, the anger might now be coming from the Leave camp because there was a slender majority for remaining.
We’ve had it now though: a referendum foisted upon on us by the government for entirely political reasons (the Ukip terrier snapping at the Conservative Party’s heels). Few people, apart from the aforementioned and some of the ideologues of the far left actually wanted it but we’ve all now got it, obtained on terms that offered a simple (simplistic?), binary, black-or-white, totally-remain or totally-leave choice, and we’ve been left with a country and a society split down the middle and the two major political parties in chaos. Leavers are delighted, because, having sold and been sold a false prospectus (my polite term for sordid lies), now they can revert, they think, with heart-bursting patriotism and fuzzy nostalgia to a Britain Great again (just like the seductive Trump message to America really) and grand and proud isolation and the bulldog spirit and blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover. I don’t say that sneeringly to disparage World War 2 and the memory of those who served and suffered in it, but some aspects of the mid-twentieth century were nothing to be proud of, like the xenophobia about Johnny Foreigner, particularly if he had a dark skin. But Remainers (certainly this one) are extremely disappointed and unhappy about being dragged back to that un-enlightenment; to a meaner, less tolerant, less welcoming Britain.
And it’s no good Brexiteers simply saying, get over it; democracy has delivered. It hasn’t. Well, it’s done so only in very basic, crude terms (but that’s how the British voting system usually works, preferring populism to thoughtfulness and true representation, so nothing really new there). Mind you; if the opposite slender result had occurred, you can be sure that Farage, Johnson et al would have been screaming in protest and the far left would have been muttering about Establishment conspiracy, or something. They would have felt just as disenfranchised as Remainers do now.
So what’s to be done? Well, patently, things can’t just be left as they are, with resentments left to stew on one side whilst the winners complacently and triumphantly bask in their ‘victory’. This shouldn’t have been like a boxing match with two irreconcilable opponents slugging it out in a winner-takes-all trial of brutal pugilism. It’s too important for that. The British public might be sick to gill level of hearing about the European Question (and most of it wasn’t very interested before, anyway) but it’s got to continue to debate with itself, lead by parliament, and the two big political parties have got to stop bickering among themselves and discuss the matter intelligently. It’s the only way. As Winston Churchill famously said, jaw jaw not war war.
I think Nick Clegg, and also the Green Party, are right; have a proper, grown-up, in-depth parliamentary debate about Britain’s new relationship with Europe and the degree to which we will probably (say it quietly) have to compromise. That’s the only way to reconcile the polar-opposite sides of the debate. It always is. Discuss the necessary trade-offs: continued access to the single market, at least to some extent, and the other side of the bargain, continued free movement, also at least to some extent, of people (but in such a way that doesn’t damage human relationships). Whether to make no (or a lesser) monetary contribution to the EU in exchange for some continuing aid for the poorer parts of Britain. And how much influence in decision making a lesser role in Europe might entitle a semi-detached Britain to. That sort of thing. In other words, Euro-lite, really. As I say, a compromise. That’s assuming of course that the EU would be willing to grant Britain any more special arrangements (it was already outside the Euro, the Schengen zone, had a substantiate rebate and was unwilling to take many refugees) after it has just raised two metaphorical fingers to Europe.
But whatever terms can be obtained for Britain, they should be discussed in parliament, intelligently, and then, as Clegg and the Greens say, put it to the people again in terms of a general election – one focused specifically on the question of Europe. Apart from anything else, from the Labour Party’s point of view it would settle once and for all whether Jeremy Corbyn really is or isn’t the leader to make it electable.
Or alternatively, after negotiations to leave the EU have given Britain the best terms it can expect to gain, a second referendum could be held, on the clear understanding that it must be a double or supermajority vote, take it or leave it people, for such a radical change.
Or both of these things, as the Green Party, trying to be constructive and rise above the tribalism, backstabbing and intolerance of the big parties, is advocating. In the words of the popular cliché, we are where we are. The votes have been counted. The die has been cast. But no. Not really. I’m not suggesting that the Leave vote simply be overturned and the Brexiteer’s wishes ignored. Equally though, they should respect the concerns of the not-many-fewer people in the Remain camp. So to repeat once more, the only reasonable solution really seems to me to be a compromise acceptable by as many people as possible. That wouldn’t please everyone of course, and isn’t completely satisfactory by any means. Obviously, you’d never accommodate every diehard from either side. But, having had chaos and divisiveness visited upon us, it’s probably the best we can hope for now.
I won’t hold my breath waiting for it to come along though.
Picture credit: Emmanuel Giel/Wikipedia Commons