The EU referendum

Sat 18 June 2016

For citizens used to representative democracy the belief we're voting for significant change can be intoxicating. We like to anchor our instinctive reaction for Remain or Leave, or Yes or No, with rational arguments. But instinct is a more powerful driver of thought than many of us can admit. Try as we might, there's no way to cleanly separate the emotional and rational elements of the debate.

Readers of my writings might expect me to present arguments drawn from graphs, tables and numbers. But there aren't going to be any in this blog post. With only a few days left in the EU referendum campaign it is highly unlikely any new significant facts will come to light, and every falsehood expressed will have been refuted at least once. But the falsehoods are more sensational and are announced with greater confidence and volume. So much so that nuanced analysis from academics, politicians, journalists and engaged citizens seems like a cautious whisper in the hubbub of a heaving pub.

The referenda of 2014 and 2016 are binary votes in which no one is elected. It should be no surprise that they generate division followed by confusion as voters on both sides try to hold various parties — or parts of parties — to account with varying degrees of reason and success.

Whether you like it or not, we live in a democracy in which we elect representatives to govern, and good governing involves informed decision making and negotiation, especially when other countries are involved. But, referenda allow governing politicians to outsource decision making to the populous. They then express their opinion on what must happen based on one particular question without sufficient thought going into how it can be brought to reality.

Now, hold on a minute, you might say (and I'm thinking it too or I wouldn't be writing this paragraph), is it right that our parliament should decide such important matters for us? The implicit answer to this question for almost all previous significant issues of state is "yes". This was true for going to war, for not joining the Euro, for rescuing the banks, for nationalising and privatising the railways, to name but a few. These examples are hardly trivial matters.

And more crucially, such large national and international issues cannot be viewed independently; they are deeply entangled. For example, the EU was a significant issue in the Scottish referendum and vice versa. This kind of entanglement is, at least in good part, why people who now intend to vote for Brexit did not all vote UKIP in 2015, and why people who voted Yes in the Scottish referendum were not all SNP voters in previous elections. (And no, beyond some superficial similarities, I don't see UKIP and the SNP as having much in common.)

One of the things I appreciated about Scotland's referendum, and about the Yes campaign in particular, was that it crossed traditional party boundaries. The same was true of Better Together, though it's hard to dissociate it with the image of Cameron, Milliband and Clegg delivering that last minute, panic-stricken vow.

I had hoped that the referendum would help shake up Scottish party politics. And it did. But a new binary politics asserted itself, with the Yes vote concentrating on the SNP and leading to some vocal antipathy directed at so-called Unionist parties. The Scottish Labour party, though certainly deserving of criticism, and already punished in the 2007 and 2011 elections, received the heaviest dose of scorn and vitriol from the SNP's most fanatical supporters. I was surprised by how tolerant very reasonable SNP voters and the party leadership was of them. I remember being taken aback when asked by a friend "So you quite like Jim Murphy then?" to which I replied "Not really, I just don't think he should have to put up with that guy shouting in his face."

I don't wish to imply that a tiny minority of unpleasant individuals represent the generally peaceful and positive people that came together to support a Yes vote. But nor do I find large crowds of people congregating to reinforce their views on one side of a binary vote particularly inspiring either. Of course, you can find it civic and joyous, as Alex Salmond described it, and I can simultaneously find it disturbing. There is no contradiction here. However, when a highly intelligent and knowledgeable friend told me the situation created by the referendum wasn't divisive, the fact we were divided on that very point seemed to escape his notice.

The EU and Scottish referenda have some similarities, but differ in many significant ways. The UK and EU are very different unions. The UK is much older than the EU and involves closer ties in trade and culture and shares a currency and language. Whereas the EU referendum has been dominated by the divisions in the highest ranks of the Conservative UK government, the 2014 referendum was unanimously backed by the majority SNP government in Scotland, and to their credit they produced a White Paper setting out their vision of an independent Scotland. Even if it was flawed and revenue projections for oil were wildly different from subsequent reality, it was more thorough than anything that has been produced to describe the UK outside the EU.

I'm writing this the day after Jo Cox was killed. Horrendous, senseless, heart-breaking are a few inadequate words that come to mind. I don't wish to speculate on how it might be related to the EU referendum, but it has paused the campaigns and I hope people will use this time to reflect rather than just dwell on the tragedy and read meaning where there may well be none.

I will vote Remain, not from any certainty, nor from any love of the EU, but because from what I've read and understood it seems likely that by remaining a part of the EU we will see a better future. And by "we", I primarily mean people in the UK, but also fellow Europeans and people who come to Europe to escape the horrors of warfare elsewhere in the world, most obviously in Syria.

It's hard to imagine Europe descending into such a nightmare, or that it might once again be at the heart of a world war. Perhaps we have trouble imagining it because the first world war has left living memory and the second is beginning to fade, but we shouldn't ignore the flames of conflict that still flicker around the edges of the EU. Civilisation is a thinner shell around humanity than many of us suppose, but its strength comes from its integrity, and so I believe we should be very wary when we see a crack developing.