Okay, so now we have an election out of the way, we have a referendum (at this point, please do read Paul Evans’ widely read critique of Referendums for context here). And, sadly, if inevitably, we are already drowning in Bullshit.
It is by no means a one-way street. Both sides are at it. The mere calling of a Referendum means that any subtlety and/or the normal trade-offs are out of the window. It’s a populist bonfire instrument which forces campaigns to search for whatever inflammatory material comes to hand.
For the ordinary voter, it is both wonderfully seductive and wildly enervating. The fuzzy mess and over complication of the present democratic system is reduced to a single binary: we go versus we leave.
Roughly, we can say with a degree certainty that Leave is winning that battle, though it’s much less than certain they’ll win the war. Cameron’s private polling is still telling him that Remain will win, but by far too narrow a margin for him to relax for a moment.
What’s puzzling the more thoughtful economists is that the case for staying, in purely economic terms at least, is an open and shut case for Remain. Uncertainty in the market and the cost of repatriating policy making will be significant costs, extending ‘austerity’ by another couple of years.
Talk to anyone who is already convinced (and in England there are legions of them) and none of that cuts any ice. “So what, I want to be free”. Instead of Wallace, think Henry V and you’re half-way to understanding what’s driving this yeoman revolution.
Like Edward Bernay’s genius 1929 torches of freedom campaign (designed to trigger a ‘social movement’ to encourage women to smoke cigarettes), the Leave side have nicked the best tunes, leaving Remain only with a long slow dirge about economic disasters if the UK leaves.
The comparison with the positivist thinking that almost worked for Yes in the Scottish independence referendum is striking. At the time, Carol Craig referenced the work of Martin Seligman:
…there are times when it makes sense to be optimistic (or use optimism building techniques if you are prone to pessimism) and times when it is better to be pessimistic.
He writes: ‘The fundamental guideline for not deploying optimism is to ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation. If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy’.
It would be hard to argue that Brexiteers are optimists in the same mould of those looking for an independent Scotland. In interview on Sunday on RTE’s Marian Finucane show Edwina Currie complained about older about taking risks with the jobs of their kids and grandkids.
Eurosceptic babyboomers (most of whom are either retired or are on the run into a much earlier and wealthier retirement than their kids or grandkids are ever likely to enjoy) know and understand the power of numbers they’ll have in the upcoming referendum.
But there is another factor. Most of the devolved areas in the UK are strongly leaning towards remain. Yet in peripheral England that trend is far from evident: even in regions which suffer similar levels of deprivation.
Johnny Mercer the Tory Plymouth MP who came out passionately for Remain on Sunday ran a poll of his own constituents and found that 74% of his hard pressed constituents want to leave. (A classic case of don’t ask a question if you don’t wish to hear the answer to it).
In England, the bones of local government have been picked clean. With little regional democratic oversight most decisions resile to London, and in London’s eyes Cornwall and the south west is where David Cameron goes on holiday, not where people need houses and work.
It’s this systemic policy failure which is at the base of this rather traumatising experience for London’s pro EU political class more anything to do with the pros and cons of the EU. Immigration is big, but it’s also dissatisfaction with life in low wage, low productivity austerity Britain.
Tony Blair’s former speech writer Phillip Collins noted in The Times of London last week that his former boss was right…
…to say that demanding fewer immigrants cannot be the right answer for an open economy. Yet there we go, straight back into abstraction. Popular concern with immigration will not be mitigated by lessons in macro-economics.
The case has to address the people, mostly Labour voters in core Labour seats, for whom an open economy sounds like an open invitation for someone else to take their job.
Two questions arise.
One, is Brexit a fit solution to the problems generated by running a large low wage open economy, a housing shortage, poor levels of investment (Sir Phillip Green?) and productivity with high levels of immigration (333,000 net last year — 184,000 of it from inside the EU)?
Two, what, in the longer term (whether it’s In or Out), will have to be done to address the deficits in policy which have seen house building at a relative standstill (whilst house prices in England have rocketed) for nearly a generation in Britain?
The problem is chronic not acute. And yet a referendum is an acute instrument with in regard to the EU at least a very poor record of delivering what the people think they are voting for. [Oh yeah, what was that Greek OXI vote all about again? – Ed.]
If you don’t think it will happen to the UK, consider this from Paul Evans yesterday…
There is no deliberative assembly that the British public could have elected in the last thirty years that would have dared take responsibility for leaving the EU because they would have had to face the voters again a few years afterwards, and it wouldn’t be pretty.
The truth is that most Referendums are far from deliberative affairs. It’s a marathon in which everything including the kitchen sink can and will be thrown at the opponents. Take Northern Ireland, where a full 34% of our exports go directly to the Republic?
Will there be check points? I incline towards Sammy Wilson’s assurances that there won’t. Not that he’s right about free travel between Norway and Sweden (which is conditioned by external circumstances), but everything that can be done will be done to keep Ireland open.
And yet, even the best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men can fail. As The Economist points out…
If a post-Brexit Britain restricted free movement or left the EU’s single market, there would be consequences for its only land border with another EU country, the 300-mile (480km) line dividing Northern Ireland from Ireland.
And Sammy knows he’s in no position to issue any reliable guarantees in that regard. In truth, the big issues lie elsewhere within the state. Phillip Collins “concern about the level of immigration did not begin with Vote Leave and will not end when it disbands”.
He offers a basket of issues he believes needs tackling: including the re-establishment, as of principle, the connection between contribution and welfare, and the chronic failure of UK technical education, which makes Poles much more desirable employees than native Brits.
None of these ‘solutions’ necessarily comprise Brexit. Returning to his major theme, Paul Evans reprises on the magical effects of the binary plebiscite…
A few months ago, outside a small bunch of political fanatics, the British public wasn’t too bothered about EU membership either way. Most of us had plenty of issues that we understood better and that bothered us more.
By June 24, those same agnostics will have been polarised by the ridiculous claims from both sides. Anything up to 49.99 per cent of the people who vote (and possibly more of the people who could have voted) will have a decision that they don’t like imposed on them.
This polarisation means that there will soon be demands for this all to be re-run, no matter who wins. [Emphasis added]
Depending on who you listen to Brexit (because it is at this stage an entirely theoretical state of being) is different things to everyone. The Brexit that Sammy Wilson says he wants is one with soft borders that will (he tells us) have little effect on north south travel.
That’s hardly compatable with Nigel Farage intention to ramp up serious controls on immigration. The Tory opposition to Cameron want ‘something’ in between. All discount re-adjustment costs, and the effects of scrapping employment measures like the working time directive.
It’s these competing and contradictory expectations that are likely to create the kind of soupy flux we’ve seen in post IndyRef Scotland.
But referendums aside, there’s a problem too with the shape of governance of traditionally linear institutions in an increasingly non linear world. George Magnus blogs, and hits several nails on the head…
Facts yes, by all means, but show some understanding and empathy too.
I’m not sure at all from one day to the next whether younger voters and waverers will be persuaded, despite this, to tilt the vote to stay, assuming they can be persuaded to turn out to vote in sufficient numbers in the first place.
But whichever way the vote goes, our ‘elite’ and political parties are going to have to do a better job, listening to what communities are saying, and not what top down researchers tell them. [Emphasis added]
Quite. Meanwhile, the PM, who is anti-Brexit (in case you’d forgotten), is getting tetchy. Like the Provisionals used to say about their terror campaign against the British government, Leave only has to get lucky once. Cameron has to remain lucky right to the very end.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty