On 16th June this year, a week before the EU referendum, supporter of the ‘Remain’ campaign, was stabbed to death in her parliamentary constituency. On his first appearance before magistrates her alleged murderer was asked to confirm his name and replied simply: “Death to all traitors, freedom for Britain”. It seems that medical issues will not be a factor when he comes to trial, but his “political” convictions no doubt will, and far–right sympathies may well feature.
The referendum campaign itself was a pretty well classic example of what happens when a government fails to govern. The issue at stake was a complicated one, and one that goes to the heart of Britain’s future as a democratic country and as an integral part of its own continent. Yet rather than debate the issues against a background of fact and informed judgement in the “Mother of Parliaments”, the government chose to offer a referendum, apparently because of serious internal Party divisions that might have prejudiced its chances in the 2015 election. These divisions were stark; the EU issue had for years been hijacked by right-wing political extremists and Cameron, fearing inroads into the Party’s voting base by the equally extremist and xenophobic UKIP in the 2015 election judged it necessary to neutralise them and his own extremists by means of a referendum. This was a heavy blow to Parliamentary democracy and to the leadership of Parliament.
The general good of the country seems to have been absent from the Cameron’s calculations. And so was the experience of other countries, despite advice, that unless well organised with a clear and concise question and a well informed public, any referendum risks opening a Pandora’s box of issues and pent-up emotions not necessarily related to the one in question. Prime Minister Cameron might have reflected, but did not, that when in 2005 President Chirac held a referendum on adoption off the EU’s proposed constitution (the electorate voted against) it was judged that a sizeable proportion voted against because they disliked his domestic policies.
In the case of the EU referendum it was also a device until recently foreign to the British style of democracy and, given the limited nature of the Government’s case for remaining, it became a platform that enabled unscrupulous politicians, freed from the moderating context of the House of Commons, to exploit the ‘menace ‘ of an outside power , Brussels and the EU, to promote their own ambitions and personal agendas. Boris Johnson (now Secretary of State on Foreign Affairs) had even said he saw no real difference between the EU and the work of the Nazi Party. Needless to say this farrago of myth and distorted history encouraged an insular and fantasy led nationalism among many people, and a proportion of the public (but not all), duly obliged and behaved like hypnotised sheep.
The first casualty was the truth and its partner, commonsense, the props that underpin public understanding of a situation and that should lie at the core of a rational debate. As Hannah Arendt said of totalitarian propaganda, “what convinces are not the facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are part.” This was evidently the case in the relentless mythology of “independence” and “freedom” sold to the public by the media and various prominent public figures. This was nowhere more evident than in the TV debates which were so badly moderated that the facts were as a faint sound of a tiny insect in a large field of whipped up emotion. There was no attempt to monitor the speakers, mostly politicians with their own agendas, in their wilder outpourings; the whole thing was little better than a “bread and circuses” show in which shouting loud and a kind of verbal prostitution was used to inflame the invited audiences.
Words like “hope” ,‘sovereignty’, ‘control’, ‘give us back our country’ were brandished about like a hooker’s flashing thighs on a roadside while untruåths, economic nonsense and a persistent , latent xenophobia became the currency of the so called discussions. It was politics in the public arena at its lowest and it did not end there for Hannah Arendt’s observation was strikingly endorsed recently by David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and a rabid anti EU activist, who said publicly that the EU referendum campaign untruths were not important since they did not swing the vote. This despite the fact that the polling company, Ipsos Mori, had reported that 47% of voters had believed the untrue claim that the UK pays £350 million per week to the EU despite the fact that this claim had been criticised by the UK Statistics Authority.
Behind it all lay a consistent system, some 40 years of disinformation, manipulation and scorn for Brussels and the European project by the majority right-wing press. And latterly by that same right wing press a relentless catalogue of negative stories and myths about immigrants, in particularly EU immigrants. This came across as a kind of mass media irresponsibility engendered by who knows what unbalanced education, ill will, blindness and lust for past glory, feelings of alienation from the rest of Europe which the right-wing finds it difficult to treat as equals while it dreams of a kind of English speaking world order. So distorted was this onslaught that the EU’s regulation and harmonisation directives which are directed at deepening the Single Market to everyone’s advantage including the UK (which was in fact a major aim of Mrs Thatcher) was foisted on the public as ‘foreigners telling us what to do’ and a plot to create a superstate.
Inevitably the language of political intolerance spread and became common coinage among the right wing and a segment of those who voted ‘leave’. Witness the press pronouncements in recent weeks. If you are in favour of the UK remaining in the single market you are, according to the Daily Mail, ‘part of a plot to subvert the will of the British people’. (Never mind that only 1/3 of the electorate voted to leave and Scotland and Northern Ireland did not do so). The Daily Express went further: ’ if you are an MP who feels that Parliament should have a vote on Brexit you are ‘guilty of snake-like treachery and should be punished’. The paper followed this with the claim that if you are a Treasury economist whose calculations suggest leaving the EU without a trade deal will inflict grave damage on the UK economy you are a ‘fifth columnist’ and it’s time to silence you’.
This is the language of intolerance taken to the extreme and the mood was not confined to the media. Amber Rudd, Conservative Home Secretary announced proposals at the Conservative Party conference to make British firms reveal the numbers of foreign staff. The proposals caused an outcry and were subsequently dropped but not before a whiff of National Socialist Germany had infected the atmosphere. It seems that Rudd retains plans to prevent migrants from taking jobs British people could do and the possibility of deporting EU nationals for minor crimes was mentioned along with other apparently anti EU citizens measures. ‘Immigrants who consume UK wealth are not welcome’ became part of the outcry. Meantime foreign academics have been barred from giving advice on Brexit because it seems they might reveal the government’s negotiating positions.
Even the Prime Minister, Mrs May, was not immune from subverting Parliamentary democracy; at the Conservative Party Conference in September she announced that ‘;those people who argue that Article 50 can only be triggered after agreement in both Houses of Parliament are not standing up for democracy; they are trying to subvert it’. This despite the fact that the referendum result was not legally binding and the Electoral Commission itself declared that the referendum campaign had glaring democratic deficiencies and people were ill informed. Also, of course, some 13 million of the 46,500 million electorate did not vote at all. Perhaps some were discouraged by the rowdy and ill-informed nature of much of the debate; perhaps some could not find reliable facts amid the fog of misinformation and decided to leave it to the experts, perhaps some could not be bothered. Whatever, the result in effect means that some 17 million voters can dictate the future of the 46 million, not to mention the present 16 to 18 year olds who did not have a vote and whose lives will be the most affected. And let it be clear this is not a general election when the result can be reversed in 5 years’ time; this is a once and for all decision.
Needless to say the torrent of distortion and implied xenophobia in the media and government circles plus the anti-EU immigrant rhetoric used by politicians during the referendum campaign, have encouraged those for whom it is acceptable to abuse people racially and attack them in the streets to think they have official sanction for their actions and a ‘democratic’ mandate ‘to drive immigrants out of the country. According to the Home Office ‘hate crimes’, racially or religiously aggravated offences increased by 41% in July after the referendum compared with the same month in 2016. And this reflects only reported cases; most hate crimes are apparently not reported. The atmosphere engendered by the referendum and subsequent propaganda has translated into violence on the streets and unprovoked attacks on Eastern Europeans as a result of which at least two have been killed.
On an grotesque note, perhaps inappropriate in such dire circumstances, but utterly revealing of the insularity at present prevailing among sections of the populace, a Conservative local government councillor in Guildford, Surrey, dug deep into entrails of ‘Englishness’ and started a petition demanding that the 19th century Treason Felony Act (its origins go back to the 16th century) be updated and applied to those who ‘ imagine, devise, promote, work or encourage others to support the UK becoming a member of the EU’ or ‘to conspire with foreign powers to make the UK or part of the UK become a member of the EU’.
The biggest monster unleashed by this sorry story is its impact on parliamentary democracy. The UK has no written constitution to protect its people and is therefore reliant upon the judgement and decisions of Parliament which are those of the British people expressed through their elected representatives. Parliament is and has been for centuries the arena for measured debate and law making; it has the status of well justified authority in the eyes of the nation. It decisions stand and are respected nationwide.
But the most public EU referendum events did not promote respect for the facts and judgement of those with relevant experience. Wisdom and integrity were strikingly lacking when most needed. The result was to open the way for ‘intellectual’ mob rule whipped up by a hysterical press, irresponsible politicians, celebrities and other public figures and spread around by social media as a kind of metastasis living off ignorance and insularity. Pandora’s box of non-related issues was duly opened; unemployment, low wages and social degradation all played their part in the vote while having mostly only a marginal relevance to the referendum’s question but overwhelming relevance to people’s lives.
To that extent the result reflected the failure of British governments over the years. That the terms of reference of the referendum allowed for such a wide range of voices was perhaps inevitable but the failure over the years to inform the public of the reality of the EU, its benefits and the UK’s role in it is a real failure of governments too blinkered to grasp and present the wider picture even of their own continent. The consequences will be far reaching and the attempted muzzling of Parliament and its authority may be among the worst. Jo Cox might still be alive today if it had been the authority of Parliament that had ruled on the EU rather a distorted version of ‘democracy’.