While all involved should be congratulated for staging it, goodness knows what the public made of the streamed Brexit debate. The horrible truth is that we are required to say yes or no to a question which admits of no clear answer. No one knows the cost of “uncertainty,” or the advantages of going it alone Dunkirk style. The Leave campaign is Panglossian, Remain is perilously like Mr Micawber. Call me parochial but the lack of a full time Northern Ireland panellist was glaring. However committed to her native soil Labour MP Kate Hooey doesn’t fit the bill. For some reason they also failed to find a neutral chair and power chaired it unsuccessfully.
For me best speakers were the former SoS Owen Paterson for Leave, airing his frustrations over dealing with the EU as a cabinet minister, supporting UK going- it- alone internationally and saving £8 billion a year; and for Remain, former Conservative MEP John Stephens looking ahead to an ever -globalising world where you need to be Big to survive and which is less about tariffs and hard goods and more about regulation and services. EU membership is necessary to resist trends towards international protectionism and preserve the British lead in services in Europe.
Questions about the peace process, the common travel area , north-south trade and British -Irish relations were too quickly shrugged off. The Bel Tel report does the local journalist thing of exaggerating the local angles in the debate.
In the too short time for available for questions from the floor, the debate took off when a businessman asked the practical question: “how would Brexit affect our interest rates and mortgages?” Remain Co-chair Angela Magowan of Danske Bank said inflation and interest rates would rise but the Leave co-chair Jeff Peel shouted her down. This was Northern Ireland after all.
In a real sense this is not our referendum. It’s taking place over specifically English nationalist notions of Westminster sovereignty and a curious nostalgia for the Commonwealth. The Brexit side fails to notice that sovereignty today is little more than a doomsday backstop, having been compromised for generations over national defence, myriad trade and legal relationships, currency rules, the growth of human rights and more recently devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
On the other hand the EU expanded willy-nilly south and east after the abrupt fall of the Berlin Wall, in the fond hope that it would all be alright in the end, and despite the fact – by their own admission – that a common European “demos “or united democratic community does not exist. Global financial crisis and turmoil in the middle east gave us all a rude awakening and exposed the weaknesses of our common institutions. For me, however that is no reason to give them up. Just now the EU may not be making a great success of the euro, immigration and political stability. But can you imagine Europe and the UK doing any better without it?
Ipsos Mori did trend polling by text before and after the debate. Remain won but the debate narrowed the gap. I failed to catch the figures and so far nobody has bothered to report them.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London