Politics

Referendum ad hominem

In a survey conducted by the polling company YouGov, in late May, a third of respondents doubted they would cast an ‘informed’ vote in the impending referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. If that doesn’t sound too bad, then consider that only a quarter of those polled had a ‘great deal’ of confidence in their ability to make this momentous decision.

To assiduous viewers of BBC One’s Question Time, the finding came as no surprise. The evidently frustrated audience member who loudly proclaims ‘We need more information!’, has joined the sad lamenter of yah-boo politics and the gruff a-plague-on-all-your-houses type as one of the programme’s stock characters. On an almost weekly basis he or she will pipe up, usually to loud applause, to remind the panel that for many Britons the effect of the referendum campaign has been sheer bafflement.

Similar complaints have been heard on countless radio phone-in shows and from the many ‘ordinary’ people who have been ambushed by local news reporters in the cause of discovering the views of the man (or woman) in the street. If you want clarity on what’s at stake tomorrow, there’s no point bothering the passengers of the Clapham Omnibus.

Which is curious, as the one thing this long and dispiriting campaign has not obviously lacked is information – specifically, that most brute form, the statistic. Even Britain’s emus must have clocked George Osborne’s dubious £4,300 per household and the Brexiteers’ dodgy £350 million every week, while conscientious don’t knows can turn to a plethora of reports from HM Treasury, the Bank of England, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress, the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (to cite only the more ‘august’ bodies) to inform their decision-making. Add in HM Government’s much-derided leaflet (key facts: 16 pages, 27 million homes, £9.3 million), the various ‘high-profile’ interventions (Barack Obama, George Soros, Donald Trump), and the flood of letters from luvvies, historians, scientists and business leaders – time to buy shares in Royal Mail plc? – and the resulting impression is not of a dearth of facts, but of a copious, money-shot factgasm.

Faced with such big data – in terms both of its quantity and the huge numbers involved – it is no surprise that the electorate is confused. But probably more significant is the information’s uncertain reliability.

It’s not just that so many of each side’s claims and counter-claims are the stuff of futurology; prediction is a necessary feature of a debate about Britain’s role in the 21st century. The problem is that too much of the campaigning has appeared wilfully mendacious. The sight of Penny Mordaunt, the armed forces minister, repeatedly denying that the UK has a veto on new entrants to the EU on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, in order to perpetuate fears about Turkish membership, ought to have been career-ending, except that far bigger beasts had already sunk as low. Indeed, the Leave campaign’s star turn, Boris Johnson, has been publicly called out as a ‘liar’, a ‘conman’ and a ‘phoney’ (Nick Cohen) and condemned for ‘dishonesty’, ‘cruelty’ and ‘recklessness’ (Matthew Parris) – which is, if you pause to think about it, a very pretty pass to have reached.

Not that we should entertain the rather grandiose notion that British politics has entered a new ‘post-truth’ era. That politicians use deceit, distortion and deflection to win support is hardly a revelation. But even if it was ever thus, the impression of decline, the widespread sense that the current political class represents a post-war nadir, is hard to resist.

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Harold Cameron (artwork by Alwyn Turner)

Take in evidence the referendum of 1975. To the fore of the ‘yes’ campaign were Harold Wilson, Roy Jenkins and James Callaghan for Labour, the new Conservative helmswoman Margaret Thatcher, with her predecessor Edward Heath, and the still popular Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Among the most prominent ‘no’ voices were Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union Jack Jones, and Enoch Powell. The contrast with Remain and Leave today is dispiriting.

David Cameron may have media-savvy, but he’s not the prime minister who honoured the Beatles. Nor does his CV measure up to that of a man who won four general elections, served as assistant to William Beveridge during the Second World War – arguably a more illustrious apprenticeship than advising Norman Lamont at the time of Black Wednesday – and who, a full 17 years before entering Number 10, was made the youngest cabinet minister of the twentieth century.

But at least Cameron/Wilson is a comparison that can be made with a straight face. The Remain camp’s support acts fare far worse.

George Osborne versus the Mighty Woy?

Alan Johnson as Uncle Jim?

How about the current leader of the opposition against the weather-changer-in-the-making who fought her way to that role in February 1975?

What, no takers? I didn’t think so.

Still, that first referendum on Britain’s place in Europe provides an even tougher yardstick for the Leavers. In some regards the late Tony Benn and the sometimes late Boris have much in common: privilege, egotistical ambition, and quick wits in front of the camera. But Benn, if not quite principle made flesh, was undeniably a conviction politician. Had he not died two years ago he would be arguing for Brexit again now – while simultaneously decrying the Leave campaign’s emphasis on immigration as racist and xenophobic.

By contrast, Boris has shown no great affection for his own beliefs, professed or private. His sudden rediscovery of his enthusiasm, as London mayor, for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, has come after weeks in which Vote Leave has enthusiastically wielded immigration as its Trump card, only to realise that the inevitable association with the evermore xenophobic UKIP campaign is toxic. More fundamentally, many onlookers suspect and speculate that this son of a Europhile, who as recently as December was reported to have told Eurosceptics in his own party that ‘I am not an outer’, may be feigning separatism for the sake of self-advancement.

But then Boris is a hack – in both the professional and pejorative senses of the word. He trims and trills to his audience. When weighing up Anthony and Alexander, consider this: one produced a voluminous and immersive diary, comprising 18 million words that will offer insights into post-war British politics for evermore; whereas the blond concocted cracking newspaper copy about Eurocrats regulating the girth of condoms. Tells you all you need to know.

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Boris Benn (artwork by Alwyn Turner)

The other Brexiteers aren’t faking it, but sadly for them they’re not as charming. As secretary of state for employment in the second Wilson government, Barbara Castle pushed through the Equal Pay Act of 1970, an achievement that made her the political heroine of a feel-good film about the Dagenham sewing machinists’ strike of 1968. It’s hard to see Priti Patel, the current employment minister – by no means Castle’s cabinet equivalent – receiving similar cinematic treatment. Not because Patel disdains many workplace regulations as constricting red tape, but because there’s scant evidence that anyone actually knows who she is, let alone admires her.

Michael Gove on the other hand is well known, and well disliked – to the extent that David Cameron chose to remove him from the post of education secretary ahead of last year’s general election for fear of frightening the parents. ‘Michael’, I imagine the PM said upon breaking the news, ‘internal polling puts you behind the Child Catcher. And, you know, he’s not popular with the PTAs.’

But credit where credit’s due. As justice secretary, Gove appears to have embarked on the thankless task of humanising the prison system, and when he first declared for Leave he called on Britain to ‘become an exemplar of what an inclusive, open and innovative democracy can achieve’ – a more admirable sentiment than his later slogan: ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.

Nevertheless, he’s a pale shade of yesterday’s Michael.

A year on from the London bombings of July 2005, the recently-elected member for Surrey Heath published Celsius 7/7, a neo-conservative take on ‘Islamism’ with the snappy sub-title How the West’s Policy of Appeasement Has Provoked Yet More Fundamentalist Terror – And What Has to Be Done Now. It went largely unnoticed by the general book buyer, but was deemed guilty of ‘a jejune cowboys-and-indians wordview’, and of being ‘misleading, even dangerous’ by certain critics.

Michael Foot, another pressman-turned-politician, also produced a polemic against appeasement. Released in July 1940, shortly after France’s capitulation to Nazi Germany, Guilty Men was a journalistic mauling of a policy that had left Britain isolated and on the brink of invasion. It gave eloquent voice to popular fury at a ruling class that had once again sleepwalked into total war, and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in its first months, colouring perception of the governments of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain for generations to come.

But unlike Gove – who has been a starry-eyed cheerleader for ‘liberal interventionism’, backing the 2003 invasion of Iraq – Foot was by nature a reluctant warrior. He was not a pacifist – in 1983 he was quick to support Margaret Thatcher’s decision to re-take the Falkland Islands – but, like so many of his generation, the experience of the Second World War left him unable to treat military action in the abstract. Thus he became a leading figure in the campaign for nuclear disarmament, and a fierce critic of military aggression wherever he saw it. (By comparison, his one great ministerial achievement was rather prosaic: it was Foot who gave us elf ’n’ safety.)

Looking beyond the two main parties, not even the insurgents stand the test of time. In 1975 Jeremy Thorpe was the most visible and successful leader of the Liberal Party since David Lloyd George. Today, the Lib Dems have been reduced to a humiliated rump of just eight MPs, and Tim Farron, who in other circumstances would be among the country’s most popular politicians, and a valuable asset to the Europhile cause, is lucky to be invited onto Question Time.

Conversely, Nigel Farage is once again ubiquitous. Despite the competition from the Tory-led Vote Leave, he has fought a highly visible campaign – enjoying equal billing with the prime minister on ITV – and has boosted UKIP’s poll ratings to the extent that the damage to his anti-political persona caused by his non-resignation after last year’s general election has probably been undone.

Yet Farage too is a mere dumbing down of the original. Indeed, he may be the epitome of the slippage – because of all the combatants, the UKIP leader is the most direct legatee of the previous referendum.

In 1993, the 29-year-old Nigel, then still a stockbroker, went to Newbury to campaign for Alan Sked of the Anti-Federalist League in that May’s by-election. There he met Enoch Powell, who had come to speak in support of Sked’s Eurosceptic cause, and whom Farage had admired since the age of fourteen, when Powell and that other mad monk of the Conservative Party, Sir Keith Joseph, had visited his school, Dulwich College. A year after that encounter in Newbury, young Nigel was himself contesting a by-election, this time in Eastleigh, for the recently-formed successor to Sked’s League, the UK Independence Party.

One might suppose that Powell would have been pleased by Farage’s success – arguably it was the perceived threat to the Tory vote posed by UKIP that forced David Cameron into this referendum in the first place. But the ‘dissident stormy petrel of British politics’, often took a dim view of his ideological heirs – it was not until her public conversion to Euroscepticism in Bruges in 1988, that he began to consider backing Margaret Thatcher, and even then she disappointed him, by endorsing John Major at the 1992 general election.

Unlike his left-wing alter ego, Tony Benn, Powell was not one to cultivate disciples. Nor was he a party animal: despite his ambition to lead the Conservatives, he was a serial rebel at a time when unity was still the Tories’ cardinal virtue. Rather than grubbing his way through the party machine – or seeking to build a new party in his own image – Powell seemed happier preaching from the wilderness, where the timber of his arguments might remain uncrooked by compromise. With his military styling, and glittering stare, there was about him something of Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

But for a time, following the notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968, he was one of the most admired politicians in Britain. A Gallup poll conducted soon after showed support of 74 per cent for Powell’s views on immigration, despite leading figures from all three major parties having condemned him for ‘racialism’, and notwithstanding press reports of a spate of attacks on black immigrants.

So powerful was the cult of Enoch that he was later credited with swinging the results of two general elections: in 1970 to the Tories, on the subject of race; and in February 1974, when he backed voting Labour to ensure a referendum on Britain’s membership of the ‘Common Market’. Although UKIP is once again reaching 20 per cent in some opinion polls, Nigel Farage can claim no similar mass appeal.

Nor does he display any of Powell’s brilliance, either as an orator, or a thinker. Perhaps it is too generous a thought, but I suspect the man who attained a professorship at just 25, was once regarded in some quarters as a Tory leader-in-waiting, and was undeniably one of the most gifted orators the House of Commons has ever seen – a true pulpit politician – would despair of what Sked’s Anti-Federalist League has become. Although the original architect of its platform – the Euroscepticism, the hostility to immigration – Powell would have deplored UKIP’s wilful distortions, its naked opportunism and, above all, the blithe logical inconsistency of much of its campaigning.

It is doubtful he would have parroted that spurious £350 million, or expended much energy refuting Remain’s prognostications of economic calamity: Powell was clear that his opposition to Europe was based on the issue of sovereignty, not national income.

Nor would he have implied, as Farage so often has, that the end of free movement will lead to a more welcoming policy on Commonwealth immigration – Powell set his face against the Commonwealth, regarding it as a fig leaf for the abandonment of the British Empire. And his opposition to immigration was not about wages, or skills, or the pressure placed on the public services, it was fundamentally about ethnicity: his goal was to diminish what he saw as ‘alien’ influences on Britain’s racial and cultural identity. (Here’s a tip: should Britain vote Leave on Thursday, seek out the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech as the answer to the question ‘What next for UKIP?’)

Where Farage is superior, of course, is as a blower of the dog whistle. Enoch’s pariah status has taught today’s fear-mongers to adopt a subtler lexicon. The UKIP leader’s repeated comments about ‘HIV tourism’ and his recent unveiling of that poster have rightly caused outrage. But he has been careful to avoid – and occasionally quick to condemn – overtly racial language. And at no point has he chosen to quote a voter who fears that one day ‘the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’. (Which one might consider a kind of progress, I suppose.)

Farage is not, as some have suggested, the Donald of British politics. The sadder truth is that he’s just one member of a tribute act – along with Cameron, Boris, Gove, Corbyn et al – to a cohort of politicians whose intellects, achievements and artfulness were once considered the prerequisites for high office, but which now strike us as awe-inspiring.

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Enoch Farage (artwork by Alwyn Turner)

Some might object that dwelling on the characters of the referendum campaign in this way is to miss the point. To invoke another Question Time stereotype: it’s not the personalities that matter, it’s the issues.

That was Tony Benn’s favourite maxim, of course. But Benn was wrong. Without the political life he and Powell jointly breathed into it, the referendum of 1975 might never have happened. And had the electorate not regarded those two as divisive and extreme, had it not preferred instead to place its trust in the pragmatic, reassuring Wilson, the campaign to keep Britain in the Common Market might have been lost.

It is therefore to be regretted that this referendum is taking place when the anti-political mood is so strong; and that both sides appear evenly matched in terms of the public’s disaffection, and are equally unsuited to the task of answering so momentous a question. Because come 23 June it will again be personality – not the rival camps’ spurious predictions for GDP, net migration, or peace in our time – that will determine the result.

As I’ve argued previously, this referendum is a necessary corrective to the problem of legitimacy created by successive governments’ reluctance to put the decision on further EU integration to the people; without such elite distrust of the voters, the space occupied by UKIP and Conservative Eurosceptics might be far smaller. In practice, however, direct democracy has been exposed as inadequate to the task of deciding so large and complex a matter.

Plebiscites may be an effective means of settling controversial, but relatively simple, moral questions – capital punishment, the legalisation of cannabis, abortion, gay marriage – or of validating constitutional change – devolution, reform of the House of Lords, proportional representation – but they fail on complex decisions. And that’s not simply because the information and expertise required to cast an ‘informed’ vote goes beyond the capability of the individual. In Britain, it is because our political culture, perhaps more than that of most liberal democracies, places considerable faith in representation. Call it deference or apathy – perhaps even trust – but when we elect our MPs we expect them to get on with the business of enacting legislation without unduly bothering us.

Yet on the crucial matter of Britain’s EU membership, this government has declined to govern. Worse, it has outsourced the task of resolving its own divisions to the people. And to my ears, that repeated cry for ‘more information’ sounds like an admission that we fear we’re not up to the job.

One likely consequence of this strong-arming of the voters into a choice they would rather not make is the further re-toxification of the Conservatives. Commentators pouring over the implications of the referendum for the race to succeed David Cameron pay too little mind to the damage being inflicted to the image of the party the next leader will inherit. The campaign was widely regarded as a Tory civil war even before it got going, and whatever the result, an electorate exhausted and dismayed by four months of scaremongering and deceit will not have far to look for who to blame. The government faces not only prolonged discontent in its own ranks but from the country at large.

But first there is a choice to be made. Remain or Leave? Here’s my guess, for what it’s worth, as to how and why we’ll plump for the former.

Incapable of absorbing the barrage of ‘facts’ fired at it over the past four months, let alone sifting the truths from the guesses and the lies, the electorate is currently reverting to custom – specifically elections to Westminster – and preparing to split in favour of whichever camp appears more competent and moderate, as it did 41 years ago.

If the outcome is more even than the 67:33 result of summer 1975, it will be because the playing field has been levelled. The Brexiteers have benefited from the support of a largely Eurosceptic press, whereas Fleet Street was unanimously pro-European last time around. Similarly, the economic context has been reversed: to cite – but not endorse – George Osborne, Britain is now ‘the comeback country’; the sick man is the Eurozone. And, as I’ve sought to demonstrate, the political class as a whole has deteriorated, to the extent that neither camp – but most crucially the pro-Europeans – has been able to make an inspiring case for where Britain’s future lies.

But Remain has the upper hand, and has throughout. The status quo is by its nature the less frightening choice. The centre ground of British politics continues to value the single market. The leaders of all three main parties – this time joined by Nicola Sturgeon for the Scottish Nationalists and Leanne Wood for Plaid Cymru – are unanimous in recommending that Britain should stay in. And once again, the campaign urging us to do so is fronted by a recently-elected prime minister who, if not altogether trusted by his party, is nonetheless the ablest rider of the public mood in Westminster.

To believe recent polling, it could go either way. Except the polls aren’t asking the right questions. In the run-up to last year’s general election it seemed as if the UK was headed toward a hung parliament, with Ed Miliband as prime minister propped up by the SNP. And yet the Labour Party consistently trailed the Conservatives when the voters were quizzed on leadership and economic credibility. Were those same two questions being put about the rival camps in this campaign, I suspect there would be little doubt as to the likely result on Thursday.

Crudely put, the choice in 1975 was Wilson or Benn. Today it is Cameron versus Boris – a Boris with Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood and Farage skulking in his wake.

My Lion & Unicorn colleague Dan Atkinson argues that ‘the lack of standing in polite society’ of the Brexiteers ‘is one bad reason upon which to base a vote’. And so it is. But when the ‘facts’ are in doubt, and the scale of the issues are so great as to defy mortal comprehension, playing the man instead of the ball is not obviously irrational.

So, if you can’t cast an informed vote on Thursday, I suggest you pick a team. Choose the side that looks like a Britain you can bear to live in, and then hope that’s what you get.

And don’t worry overly about the issues. Because what matters in politics are the personalities.

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