#EURef in grave danger of setting down its own “poisonous foundations”?

I’m struck by this optimistic note from Ruth Dudley Edwards…

Narrow-minded nationalism is being left behind. We have slowly evolved “a more civilised discourse” and we are much better people for it.

She argues that Ireland has become a much more civilised place because it has committed itself (if not always in the slow, patient Scandinavian style) to conversation more than confrontation.

The contrast with Britain just now could hardly be more stark. Of course, Britain is, as Ruth points out, 200 years on from the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in 1812.

But the assassination of a young Labour MP by someone from within the polity itself ought to be a wake-up call that Britain is no longer in Kansas (so to speak). Attempts to brush it off as a result of mental illness are unconvincing.

As they say in Mayo, ‘it’s not just from the wind he took it’. Nick Cohen nails the problem in The Observer today:

Paranoid populism is a general sickness, as common on the left as the right. You hear it when audiences on Question Time scream that all politicians are liars and crooks, then sit back expecting to be applauded as heartily as they applaud themselves.

You see it in the below-the-line comments desperate editors publish.

You find it everywhere on social media, in the authoritarian demands of Scottish nationalists and English leftists that the BBC sack journalists who report uncomfortable facts and in Donald Trump’s smears of all who cross him.

Paranoid populism’s defining principle can be summarised in a paragraph. No one contradicts me in good faith. My opponents must be lying. They must be corrupt. They are more than merely mistaken, they are degenerate. [emphasis added]

In Ireland referendums have become fairly commonplace. And yes, they are nearly always (but not quote always) seen as an opportunity to kick the government. But (and this is a key difference with how they’ve been used in the UK), they are part of constitutional limits imposed on parliament.

In the UK, where Parliament is supreme, referendums have no such authority. And, rather than being triggered by the limitations placed on politicians by the Constitution, they are less frequent and generally arise from some class of opportunistic political enterprise.

It’s that permission of enterprise that has turned the last two British Referendums into such zero-sum, emotional quagmires. And as Alex Massie correctly observed on the day of the assassination

A referendum is one of those moments when it counts. There is no do-over, no consoling thought in defeat that, at least, there’s always next season. No, defeat is permanent and for keeps. That’s why a referendum is so much uglier than a general election.

The ‘wrong’ people often win an election but their victory is only – and always – temporary. There will be another day, another time. An election is a negotiation; a referendum is a judgement with no court of appeal. So character reveals itself. The poster unveiled by Nigel Farage this morning marked a new low, even for him.

The mask – the pawky, gin o’clock, you know what I mean, mask – didn’t slip because there was no mask at all. BREAKING POINT, it screamed above a queue of dusky-hued refugees waiting to cross a border.

The message was not very subtle: Vote Leave, Britain, or be over-run by brown people. Take control. Take back our country. You know what I mean, don’t you: If you want a Turk – or a Syrian – for a neighbour, vote Remain. Simple. Common sense. Innit?

And if there is any doubt, he goes to point out:

So, no, Nigel Farage isn’t responsible for Jo Cox’s murder. And nor is the Leave campaign. But they are responsible for the manner in which they have pressed their argument.

They weren’t to know something like this was going to happen, of course, and they will be just as shocked and horrified by it as anyone else.

But, still. Look. When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’

Nick Cohen serves up the reasons for that strategy on a rather cold plate…

Vote Leave began by insisting it wanted nothing to do with a Ukip that echoes the propaganda of fascist Europe. (Inadvertently, of course. For as the Tory press keeps telling us the notion that the British right is standing by while neo-Nazism grows here is an appalling libel.)

Matthew Elliott, Vote Leave’s director, promised a “positive” and “internationalist” vision for Britain. We do “not need to focus on immigration”, added Dominic Cummings, his campaign director. The essential task was “to neutralise the fear that leaving may be bad for jobs and living standards”.

With a cynicism, which again I can find no historical parallel for, it has now decided to fan fear instead. Vote Leave realised it could not have won a rational argument about jobs and living standards.

As thousands of economists have warned, it makes no sense to say that the country will be better off if it turns its back on the richest single market in the world. We will take a hit. And the poor will be hit hardest.

Today, the Sunday Times has come out for Brexit and the Mail on Sunday is for Remain. Both their sister titles are on the reverse side. The fairly unenthusiastic Times editorial yesterday highlighted four key claims inflation in relation to the Leave campaign:

The Leave campaign has not needed to varnish reality, but has done so anyway. It is not true that Britain sends £350 million a week to Brussels. According to the UK Statistics Authority, the actual figure is £136 million.

It is not true that EU migration is the main cause of pressure on the NHS. That pressure comes from an ageing population and the rising cost of treatments.

It is not true that Turkey is on a path to EU membership, for all that Mr Cameron was a supporter of the idea until as recently as 2014. Since then, Ankara under President Erdogan has shown decreasing interest in accession, which takes a minimum of 15 years and which France and Germany would veto anyway.

It is not true, finally, that Brexit would answer at a stroke the prayers of those Vote Leave is wooing. This is especially so in Labour strongholds where most social problems predate the EU’s expansion and most immigration is from outside Europe.

As the Ulster playwright Gary Mitchell noted a few years back about the poisonous foundations of our own peace process: when the “agreed truth becomes accepted, the real truth becomes a lie”. Truth is often the first casualty in any referendum because the stakes are so high.

How can such a simple largely technocratic question have split a country so sublimely down the middle? As someone from Leave said during the week, this has become a new English Civil War (now with the bloodshed to go with it). And it has, just as the IndyRef before it.

Whatever happens on Thrusday, as we know from long experience, this is not “the basis of a civilised society”.

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  • Korhomme

    Fintan O’Toole has an interesting piece in the Observer today:

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/18/england-eu-referendum-brexit

    Brexit, as he sees it, is driven by English nationalism, and if there is a Brexit the UK will split, with Scotland going. Where will that leave NI?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Is it really driven by English nationalism?
    The English nationals are arguably the most continental of all people on these islands.

  • chrisjones2

    And as a Labour MP – or any MP for that matter – she was entitled to do that and her constituents seemed to be happy with that alongside all the other work she was doing for them locally. MPs in major democracy do that. We need in Parliament the specialists in foreign affairs, defence etc as part of the mix

  • On the fence!

    “The detail around this tragic event is irrelevant.

    The “remain” campaign now has a weapon against which there is virtually no defense,
    and they will use it to best advantage over these last four days.”

    The fact that the post which I typed this reply to was removed as I typed it just serves to prove the point.

  • chrisjones2

    Fintan shows a profound misunderstanding of political British Nationalism. Unlike Irish Nationalism it has mostly never defined itself on narrow country or racial lines. It sees the UK as a bigger entity bound by history and deriving additional depth diversity and strength from that connection and that shared past

    Within that there are undoubtedly elements of an English nationalism but they are small and narrow and often more racially based like EDL. They also lack any groundswell of basic political or practical support. Attacks like the awful murder of Jo Cox are very very rare for that reason and when they happen the public reaction is utter abhorrence repugnance and rejection of that philosophy. Contast that with our own fair land where there is sometimes a deification of those who are basically racist killers

    And what is Fintan’s alleged English Nationalism these days? In the south east 40% of people are not of white English backgrounds but there is evidence that significant numbers of 3rd and 4th generation immigrant families identify as British and support Brexit. With the Irish for example, how many whose antecedents emigrated to England in the early 1800s to work on the railways and in the mines still feel any sense of Irishness in their Identity? Precious few perhaps.

    English culture has gained its strength over generations by absorbing and adapting and it continues to do so what for some is a frightening pace. It will keep doing that in the future. The argument over the EU is two fold. First on the fundamental issue of sovereignty and the ability to stop the drift of Europe to a unified undemocratic state and second on the right of the UK to control immigration to a – probably still high – level it can cope with and continue to absorb

    Now in the new post Brexit Landscape the Scots may call again for a referendum on their future. Fine. If they wish to leave that is a matter of choice. But the case last time around was driven by the huge lie on their economic strength deriving from their oil reserves. There has since been a short sharp taste of reality. An independent Scotland today would be in penury and they know it.

    So let us see how this develops post Brexit. It will be interesting and all the more so when the Irish have begun to comprehend the impact of the EU s intentions on their own sovereignty and Independence. How many will vote for an end to neutrality and a nuclear capable EU Army, for example? To Irish troops in combat roles on the Borders with Russia or North Africa?

    I may have missed it but so far I haven even seen the start of that debate in the Irish Times or the country? Why not?

  • Nevin

    “Of course, Britain is, as Ruth points out, 200 years on from the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in 1812.”

    Ruth points out rather more than that: “Writing of the death of Jo Cox, the sixth sitting MP to be murdered during the last 100 years (and the only one not killed by the IRA), the London Times columnist Danny Finkelstein tried to be positive. He reminded us of the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in 1812 (by, as it happens, an obsessive loner), which caused widespread rejoicing because he was a politician.”

    List of serving British MPs who were assassinated.

    My apologies; I’ve now corrected the hyperlink.

  • mickfealty

    U bidding to re write my blog posts Nev?

  • mickfealty

    This morning?

  • On the fence!

    Yeah!

  • mickfealty

    It will have been taken off for a reason I’m pretty sure.

  • mickfealty

    I’ll be blogging this before long, but worth a listen not on the actual role of an MP… https://goo.gl/By74jg

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    “The “remain” campaign now has a weapon against which there is virtually no defense, and they will use it to best advantage over these last four days.”
    It’s with some discomfort that I read that given NI’s history where some murders were (and recently still are) treated as political capital by grandstanders even though the murder victim’s politics were not the reason for the murder. I really hope that the Remain campaign does not, no matter what the level of desperation, exploit Jo Cox’s memory. If it does, it can only add to the ‘poisonous foundations’ of the decision making. Whichever of the 2 potential outcomes are arrived at there has been sufficient poison influencing opinion to make disquiet linger for some time after June 23rd.
    I’m surprised that I’ve not seen much Slugger commentary on Cameron’s, as far as I see it, extreme cynicism in regard to calling this referendum. He is by all accounts an outer but now campaigns as an inner even though as PM he doesn’t need to be partial. I can’t help but have a lingering suspicion that he secretly wants Remain to fail and he’s playing a double game here. Rather hubristically he has, like Blair on whom he appears to model himself, opened a hornet’s nest by calling it. But then like Blair he never really had his finger on the pulse of the nation (nor can he control it) as much as he thought.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Can you clarify?

  • On the fence!

    Of-course it will, everything in life happens for “a reason”.

  • On the fence!

    Is your “discomfort” because I wrote it or because it’s true?

  • Nimn

    “But, still. Look. When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’”

    Surely, a commentary on the last 40 odd years in Northern Ireland and most recently the flags protest in East Belfast.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    It’s probably driven by several things not least English nationalism. A sense of democratic deficit (unrelated to the EU) and (not quite same thing) a sense that Westminster democracy (Mid Lothian question arises severally with 3 devolved regions/nations but not 4) is in a fragile state also find some expression among Leavers. Brexit itself won’t redress these semi-articulated concerns per se but Leave votes will serve to express a wider malaise that Brexit can’t solve. O’Toole’s prophecy may or may not come to pass after a Brexit but further soul searching may follow in terms of English and British sovereignty. And Lord knows where that may lead us.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    My discomfort is because exploiting a murder for political ends raises questions about standards, taste and decency and we in NI should learn something from our mistakes otherwise we have nothing to offer as a people.

    NB: the word paranoid appears several times in the OP: “because [you] wrote it” and “because it’s true” are neither in mutual opposition nor mutually exclusive so my response has nothing to do with you nor anything to do with any ‘truth’ as you see it.

  • ted hagan

    “and the only one not killed by the IRA”
    Well to be precise INLA assassinated Airey Neave.

  • ted hagan

    I actually think you are exploiting Jo Cox’s murder to take a swipe at Cameron. I think most politicians have behaved well and with dignity over this atrocity.

  • On the fence!

    OK, so we can both agree on it’s distastefulness.

    However my post was to firstly highlight the advantageous nature of this tragic situation for the remain campaign, and secondly, my belief that it WILL be exploited to this end.

  • ted hagan

    Recent population surveys show first and second generation immigrant families in England, especially from Asia and the Caribbean, firmly describe themselves as ‘British’, otherwise the vast majority of the population prefer ‘English’.

  • mickfealty

    Just saying, I didn’t see it, so I’ve no idea why it would have been taken off.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Where’s the evidence of that? My view of Cameron preceded Thursday’s tragedy.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Hmmmmm

  • Chingford Man

    “But the assassination of a young Labour MP by someone from within the polity itself ought to be a wake-up call that Britain is no longer in Kansas (so to speak). Attempts to brush it off as a result of mental illness are unconvincing.”

    Unconvincing, eh?

    So, Mick, you have just ascribed a motive to the person charged that has yet to be established in a court of law. Now that proceedings against the accused are active, I’m amazed that you are even speculating on the subject. Haven’t you heard of contempt of court?

  • cu chulainn

    “With the Irish for example, how many whose antecedents emigrated to
    England in the early 1800s to work on the railways and in the mines
    still feel any sense of Irishness in their Identity? Precious few
    perhaps.”

    They have integrated, as it is proper for immigrants to do. Quite unlike the British who have come here, who after being here 3 times as long have no objective other than to cause trouble.

  • Reader

    cu chulain: They have integrated, as it is proper for immigrants to do. Quite unlike the British who have come here, who after being here 3 times as long have no objective other than to cause trouble.
    The British who’s ancestors went to Ireland all that time ago have been living in the UK for the last 200 years, and seem to be quite well integrated both to their history and to their nationality.
    That seems to be perfectly reasonable.

  • cu chulainn

    If you regard colonisation as reasonable, then we obviously do not share the same moral framework.

    In most parts of the UK Brexit support is about distaste for immigrants, in NI the DUP are supporting it from a distaste of the natives.

  • Reader

    cu chulain: If you regard colonisation as reasonable, then we obviously do not share the same moral framework.
    Colonisation doesn’t come into it. We don’t have a time machine to deal with colonisation that happened 400 years ago; and the people living today on land that has been part of the UK for 200 years have no responsibility for the past. Nor have they any obligation to integrate with strangers in Cork rather than with their neighbours in Bangor.

  • Reader

    cu chulain: In most parts of the UK Brexit support is about distaste for immigrants, in NI the DUP are supporting it from a distaste of the natives.
    In general, I regard the DUP as a dodgy bunch, but I don’t follow the logic of what you think is their position. Could you join the dots for me, please?

  • Nevin

    INLA being an offshoot of the Official IRA would surely place it in the IRA stable, Ted.

  • ted hagan

    That’s a very big, unhappy stable

  • cu chulainn

    If your political aims are to continue the objectives of the colonisation, then it has not been consigned to the past.
    Why should people in Belcoo have more to do with people in Bangor than those in Bundoran?

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