I’m anti-Brexit but I’m more frightened of living in a country that uses referendums

What an awful week this is turning out to be. For perhaps the first time in my life, I’m dreading news bulletins as much as I’ve always dreaded opinion-TV.

Where the BBC’s Question Time has always caused me to snatch up the remote control, now ordinary reportage has the same effect, coloured by this wretched polarising referendum and a wider revolt of the political fanatics from all over Europe and in the US against a more measured and deliberative democracy.

The question that appears to need settling is this: which of the following will lead to a certain catastrophe?

  1. the end of a thousand years of British independence at the hands of Eurocrats and a Turkish tide?
  2. the immediate collapse of our economy, the NHS, and the Cornish Pasty industry as we slip inexorably towards WWIII?

Slugger’s older readers may recall a post of mine back in 2010 here where I made the case for the banning of referendums on the grounds that they are a travesty of democracy. One point that I missed at the time is that we have no option but to only debate at a level of frothing overstatement when we are doing so as part of a referendum. It’s almost as though the use of nuance has been made illegal.

If we were to step back and talk about it reasonably, we’d probably agree about the wider historical situation we find ourselves in; if we were to plot human progress (however we define it – peace, justice, prosperity, innovation, voice, agency, happiness) on a graph, I’m fairly sure that it would have climbed steadily, and banked upwards more steeply since 1945 in line with the fortunes of liberal democracy.

Things will probably continue to get better, no matter how we vote on Thursday. Personally, if we vote for Brexit, I think that in Britain and the wider EU, that line will rise less steeply, but it will still rise. I’m pessimistic about our potential to improve as quickly as we could do so I’m voting ‘Remain’.

Reasonable, non-hysterical pro-Brexit people probably have those upward trajectories the other way around, and we can argue about that, but we should be able to agree that it’s not life-and-death, whatever the campaign teams say.

The much bigger problem is what Brexit may be a symptom of – the decline of representative democracy – and it being replaced by a more shrill and plebiscitary one. It may just be an awful coincidence that an MP was murdered by someone who didn’t reject British citizenship for the first time since 1812,* but it feels like a commentary on a political culture that has been polarised in a way that I’ve never seen before in my lifetime.

I think we are already seeing how that could lead us over a cliff.

The EU is a product of nations who can deliberate internally, negotiate together and collaborate. If it’s nations turn into mandated bands of vetoed political delegates with no room to compromise, losing our ability to influence food-labelling standards is going to be the very least of our worries. Even in 1914, governments had some room to manoeuvre by comparison to states that are bound by plebiscites.

The problem isn’t the existence, or lack of, an EU, but the possible end to pragmatic governance.

I’m not even saying representative democracy is the best of all possible worlds. There are certainly issues that parliaments can’t discuss without having conflicting interests. But anyone who wants to replace it needs to come up with something a lot better that this polarising demagogic lie-fest that we are going through at the moment.

We are heading for a catastrophe, not because of what a government will do in response to a pro-Brexit vote** but because we no longer have an established understanding of what the pre-conditions for a good democracy are.

As long as we are not responding critically to the announcement of each new referendum, we are heading for trouble. If I were offered a promise that Referendums would be banned in every European state in return for Brexit, it’s a deal I would accept in a heartbeat.

*I exclude the murders by Irish Republicans not to play them down or excuse them in any way, but to stress that they were the product of an actual declared warfare and not just part of the warp and weft of internal political life
**I am betting fairly strongly against this btw, but that’s another story

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