On ‘Europe’ Our Leaders Have Failed Therefore We Mustn’t

On 23rd June Britain will vote in its third national referendum. It is also the second plebiscite on the European issue.

The murder of Jo Cox MP has made many people think about not only the kind of society we live in but also the kind of democracy we live in. The notion of a country participating in the democratic process, especially in something as unusual as a referendum on a question so profound to its national being as its future relationship with its neighbours, should be something that lifts the hearts. We live in a democratic age: whatever the absurd niceties and rituals of the British constitution, the people are sovereign.

And yet the debate has been so base, so personal and so shabbily conducted that on the question of Brexit or Bremain, a Rhett Butler “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” attitude is not only understandable but perhaps appropriate. Negative campaigning is inevitable. We should not be so naive as to complain at every attack. However, surely it does not have to exist in a vacuum.

The prime minister, who has led the offical Remain campaign, has predicted increased terrorist attacks, even World War Three; figures paraded by George Osborne on the impact of Brexit have been questioned and rightly treated with scepticism. It is hard not to believe that the personal attacks by Amber Rudd on Boris Johnson in the recent television debate were not part of a coordinated campaign; attacks which merely obscured the importsant issues at stake. This is not only demeaning to the democratic process but seems to have been counterproductive. Ultimately Project Fear: The Sequel may succeed, but Cameron’s short-sighted campaign has lacked a vision which could have given him a solid mandate on the European question.

If this negativity presented an opportunity for the Leave camp (or camps) to advance a positive vision of what a post-Brexit country would look like, it was one which they chose to ignore. Their sense of victimhood is palpable. They have complained at personal attacks but continually question the motives of those who support Remain. They have plumbed the depths of public discourse: the use of the horrific attacks on the LGBT community in Orlando being the saddest example. When John Major attacked Vote Leave for “verging on the squalid” for their scaremongering racism - and let us call this for what it is -  on immigration, he was displaying the not inconsiderable understatement for which he became known as premier. Recently Andrew Tyrie, the respected Treasury Select Committee chair, has called Leave’s assertion on the amount of money that could be spent on the NHS in the event of Brexit as corrosive to public trust as the use of faulty intelligence in the lead up to the Iraq War.

As the polls tighten Brexit is no longer an outside chance in this race. Brexiteers, who had been fighting a spoiler campaign for a second referendum rather than to win, have to face the prospect that they will find success with a deceptive campaign. This should frighten them as much as it should frighten voters. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Brexit - and there is a case which can be made - to win with such techniques would be deeply damaging.

A democracy needs responsible leadership. Equally it needs a responsible and engaged people

Greatness comes in many forms. Leadership is attained through pettiness, but retained through greatness. It involves courage, principles and sacrifice. The level of debate around the European issue has shown little of these qualities. Our leaders have proved themselves to be petty but not great. Voters could be forgiven not being unable to discern demagoguery from leadership such has been the pitiful display.

They would also be forgiven for an attitude of hoping that both sides lose. Certainly they deserve to.

And yet this is the biggest economic and constitutional question that this country will in all likelihood be asked to make in a generation. This is a more important question that is being asked of voters than that at most general elections. One side has to win.

There is now a real risk that the United Kingdom will pay a heavy price for a referendum promise which was only made to appease Eurosceptic rebels and now could backfire. That the country was only asked to vote on such a crucial issue because of the seeping wound within the Tory party since Margaret Thatcher’s defenestration is an insult. Should the country vote for Brexit on Thursday 23rd June we would hope that David Cameron, having led the country to a precipice, would resign with honour, except that those who would succeed him - and therefore deal with the calamity they helped create - would be far, far worse.

Time and again the Leave camps have struggled to name a single international organisation which supports Brexit; politicians, such as Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith, have indicated that economic instability is a price worth paying for a return of sovereignty. However, there is no guarantee, either in the short term or the long term, that this is feasible. Other countries from Switzerland to Norway have trading relationships with the European Union which mean they accept a loss of absolute control. It is the nature of the beast. There is a danger that suspicion of international companies and global elites - best demonstrated in the opposition to Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership - becomes an opposition to the idea of trade itself. Voter anger at a perceived establishment must not blind them to rationalism.

It would be perfectly possible for Disclaimer to advocate a reluctant Remain vote. However that is not enough. A democracy needs responsible leadership. Equally it needs a responsible and engaged people. When politicians abdicate their charge it becomes even more important for citizens to assume theirs. It has to be possible to damn both the houses of Bremain and Brexit, without jeopardising our security, our economy and our internationalist values. Europe has its faults but it has enriched our lives to an inordinate degree whether it is through trade, culturally or in our complex and modern identities. We are no less British because of the European Union. In fact, we are more so.

So don’t just vote to remain, vote to remain with enthusiasm. Perhaps that’s the best way for both sides to lose.  

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About the author

Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.

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