Thursday, 23 June 2016
A few thoughts on what the EU referendum told us
Like most liberals, I'm an internationalist. Without saying a great deal about my personal feelings, let me just make it clear that this hurts. It really hurts.
This isn't some kind of political game, as some political commentators are suggesting. This is a huge decision with real human, social, economic and political consequences - not only for the UK but also for Europe.
I don't plan to write a lengthy essay analysing what went wrong, but here are a few of my own observations on the referendum, the campaign, the result and what it all means.
Cameron made a serious mistake in calling the referendum. I recall Cameron making the announcement that he would hold an in-out referendum if he won the election. I was at Bob Maclennan's house at the time, and he asked "Does Cameron know what he's doing?" The dangers were obvious to both of us. Cameron's hubris and belief that he could outmanoeuvre UKIP while simultaneously reuniting his party proved a disastrous calculation. He overreached himself in his misguided attempt to neutralise the threat of UKIP with what was essentially an otherwise unnecessary referendum.
Putting party interests before the country was a huge error of judgment. There will, of course be consequences - for the Prime Minister and his chancellor, for the Conservative Party and also for the UK.
The vote was as much a vote on immigration as it was the EU. The Leave side was successful in convincing the public that leaving the EU would equate to a vote to reduce immigration. The claim was that "taking back control" would result in a tougher immigration policy, in spite of the UK's inability to reduce non-EU immigration via the current points-based system or the arrangements currently in place for Norway and Switzerland.
The vote was, to some degree, a proxy vote against "the establishment". Yes, I know that Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove are hardly the anti-establishment figures they promote themselves as. But here was an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with many things - immigration, austerity, politics in general - and was effectively a by-election on the establishment. That establishment includes not only politicians (although there was a distinctly anti-politics element to Leave's campaigning) but also bankers, economists, journalists etc. and voters' willingness to kick elites - both real and imagined - should have been foreseen.
There is a lot of anger and frustration being expressed in this result. Unfortunately, while much of this is entirely justified, this is transferred onto the EU rather than those who are actually responsible for creating isolation, refusing to respond to societal concerns and disenfranchising people. One of the most disturbing comments in a campaign full of disturbing comments was Michael Gove's comparison of experts to Nazis, but his simple claim that "the British people are sick of experts" was proved right. It is galling to see such a blatantly anti-intellectual agenda succeed, especially as those behind it will inevitably be running the government, but there is no doubt playing the "anti-establishment" card (however disingenuously) was frighteningly effective.
Bookies are about as reliable as pollsters. Every bookmaker had Remain down as a dead cert until that Sunderland declaration. Opinion polls pointed to a narrow but decisive Remain win. How could they be so wrong?
Appeals to emotion work. Politicos imagine that the public like facts. They might, but ultimately what wins votes are emotional arguments. So, when the Leave campaign are able to use the David versus Goliath narrative so convincingly, siding with the "haves" against the "have nots", countering this by pointing out Leave's lies on Turkey and the cost of EU membership was never likely to be effective. The referendum was won on many things, but perception was more important a determining factor than facts.
Economic arguments don't work. The public aren't persuaded or inspired by economics. Yes, such arguments are serious and ultimately have huge impacts on people's lives, but crude financial statistics and predictions (some of them rather bizarre) simply don't excite emotions. Focusing on the economy was hardly the wisest thing for Stronger In to make.
Both campaigns were dismal. The Leave side was particularly nasty at times - or, at least, some elements within it were - encouraging xenophobia, making threats about the risk of british women being raped, apparently inciting "violence on the streets" and publishing posters reminscent of Nazi proaganda...all while (withiut irony) brandishing their opponents "Project Fear". They provided very little clarity while suggesting that the EU would be the solution to a range of difficulties. The Remain campaign was utterly dismal and uninspiring - in a word, insipid. It failed to use its best assets (such as Caroline Lucas, Nicola Sturgeon, Tim Farron) instead allowing David Cameron to become its figurehead. It failed to communicate a clear message, instead constantly reacting to what the Leave camp was doing, surrendering the initiative in the process.
Cameron was too visible. I mean, seriously...which advisors thought this was a good idea? He should have followed Harold Wilson's example from 1975. As an unpopular Prime Minister, his involvement allowed him to be a focus of voters' anger and frustrations. The risk of allowing the Prime Minister to front the campaign should have been obvious to anyone.
Stronger In was like Better Together - only worse. Why, oh why, did the In campaign not take lessons from Scotland, where BT won the referendum but lost many of the arguments? Why the relentless negativity? Why the focus on personalities? Where was the optimism, the humour, the emotion, the humanity? The Remain campaign simply didn't give people sufficient reason to vote.
Labour is in a real mess. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to say this. The referendum provided Labour with a valuable opportunity to demonstrate its relevance and reconnect with both its core voters and one-time supporters who have deserted the party. Corbyn had a chance to portray himself as a real people's champion, standing up for the workers' rights that would be eroded by leaving the EU. He would have had far more authenticity on this point than, for example, George Osborne. But he preferred to play petty politics, refusing to share a platform with the Prime Minister and allowing Nigel Farage to speak for his core base - fatally, in Labour strongholds in the North East and Wales.
Labour has now lost Scotland, is clearly losing support in Wales and the North of England and seems to lack any clear purpose. I hoped Jeremy Corbyn would be able to provide principled and strong opposition to the Conservatives, but on the evidence of this referendum there's more chance of 76 million Turks landing in Dover.
Nigel Farage was not the asset many imagined he would be, but remains a major force. Gove was quick to distance himself from the infamous "Breaking Point" poster, and the official Leave campaign clearly has reservations. His "unconceding moment", followed swiftly by a suggestion that the decision had been swayed by extending voter registration, prompted Douglas Carswell to quip that "angry nationalism doesn't win elections or come to peaceful conclusions". Still, he's the man of the moment and, whatever we think about him and whatever his obvious weaknesses, he must now be considered one of the most effective politicians of our generation. Think about that for a moment.
This was largely an English debate. It was no surprise that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. The political conversations here were very different in nature. Issues of identity were frequently identified as being significant, and these were generally questions of English identity. Essentially, voting Leave was perceived by many a proxy for English nationalism. Not altogether surprising, but underlining the failure of the main political parties to recognise and adjust to it.
The narrative was framed largely by the media. I won't labour the point, but few people were better informed as a result.
We live in a divided society. Yes, the referendum and the campaigning certainly served to divide the country - the very nature of the debate was divisive. But many of those divisions were pre-existing, the referendum result has simply clarified them - especially along generational, class, political and regional lines.
There is a need to bring our divided society together. The result was close, very close. If there are winners, there must also be losers, who make up almost half of the electorate. Just as in the case of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, there is a need to allow for healing, to reach out and build bridges.
The early signs, however, are not good. Nigel Farage, in understandably celebratory mood, seemed to suggest Remain voters were not "ordinary, decent people." The tone of the conversation during the "debate", inevitably descending to the politics of "us and them", also doesn't give much cause for encouragement. But if we are to be a "United Kingdom" then it must be resognised that we must move forward together. As Chuka Umunna said, we should all respect the result, but also recognise that it is a divided result.
No-one seems to know what will happen next. There are things we can be reasonably certain of - market volatility, political turmoil and serious questions being asked about the future of the Union - but on the substantive issues, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.
In all likelihood, whatever happens during the next two years of negotiations, it's going to be impossible to deliver everything that many Leave voters believed they were voting for. What happens then - when they believe they have been betrayed by the negotiators and "sold out" by the establishment?
Another Scottish independence referendum now seems a near certainty. As many of us predicted during the last few months (even years) only to be told we were "scaremongering". Nicola Sturgeon is to make a fuller statement later today, but BBC News reports that she has said that "the people of Scotland see their future as part of the EU". Her intentions seems relatively clear and I for one wouldn't argue with her case for a further referendum, even if I would have preferred not to have this conversation against the backdrop of the UK leaving the EU.
Will the vote to leave the EU see the break up of the UK? I won't make a prediction, but the smart money must be on Scotland gaining independence.
The referendum campaign has been many things, but it hasn't been enjoyable. For people like me, political campaigns can be fun. But the political conversation has been utterly toxic. At least in the Scottish independence referendum people were inspired to become involved positively in politics and younger people felt actively included.
In Scotland, it's clear there is a broad pro-EU, progressive political consensus. In England, with the Labour Party in turmoil and the Liberal Democrats described by former leader Paddy Ashdown as "roadkill", where do those of us who favour building a tolerant society with an internationalist outlook go?