#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”.

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

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