Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The main problem with the EU referendum debate

is that as the arguments run into the ground of futile speculation it is increasingly becoming a matter of the personalities involved.

Do you detest Cameron, Osborne and all they stand for? Vote Leave!
Are Johnson, Gove and Farage even worse? Vote Remain!
Do you not even know which side Corbyn is on? Don't vote at all!

This is ridiculous of course, though given the nature of the UK electoral system, in a sense not surprising. The nearest analogy to the upcoming referendum vote is a general election, and the fact is that, in a first-past-the-post system where one party (with occasional exceptions) is likely to emerge as possessing a majority sufficient to govern alone then in general elections you are voting for people rather than ideas. Yes, political parties produce manifestos full of vague promises that they may or may not seek to implement, but it is not the manifesto that you elect to office, it is the assemblage of individuals who will wield the levers of power.

So a vote in a UK general election quite reasonably comes down to a question of who you trust to govern in your and the nation's interests and who you either detest or would not not trust to organise a piss-up in a brewery. Opposition politicians and the press often make a huge song and dance over governments' abandonment of manifesto pledges but my sense is that that is seldom a key issue with voters. All they care about is, are these lot doing a marginally less bad job than the other lot would have done. If so then, carry on.

Fortunately though, the referendum really isn't a question of personalities at all. The politicians involved are sort of still behaving as if it was, making wild promises about what will or won't happen after the result, but with even less actual expectation of implementing those plans than when they announce general election manifestos. Today saw two classic examples: George Osborne announcing an emergency Brexit budget that he will certainly never deliver and the Johnson and Gove revealing a post-Brexit roadmap that will clearly not be theirs to implement.

What the EU referendum is about is ideas, and large, complex and all-embracing ideas at that: ideas about joint working versus go-it-alone independence; ideas about how to manage the tensions created by the changing nature of the nation state, the economies of the rich West, terrorism and security; and of course ideas about what to do about the unprecedented movement of peoples brought about by the conflicts in the middle East.

And somehow or other we have to separate our thinking about those ideas from our response to the people espousing each of the two sides.

Ronald Reagan was instrumental in initiating a massive programme of reduction in nuclear weapons and the fact that I despised him as a simple-minded right wing ideologue doesn't mean I am opposed to nuclear disarmement just because he promoted it. Similarly, words are probably insufficient to express my contempt for Cameron and Osborne, but that doesn't mean that I want to vote for isolationism at a time when what Europe needs is to stand together.

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