Brexit: An ill-conceived and divisive referendum that will leave a toxic legacy

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The sorry story of the EU referendum has been the grimmest, most politician-led, most spin-driven, most soul-destroying spectacle in the UK’s contemporary political history. Michael James Flynn reports for IA.

WELL, AT least it’s nearly over.

The UK votes on today in a referendum on whether it wishes to remain a member of the European Union, or to leave. Advocates for direct democracy love to talk up the joys of referendums: direct political engagement, the people debating and joining in the process in a way that they are reluctant to do when it’s dominated by politicians, banners and flags everywhere.

This hasn’t been that.

This has been the grimmest, most politician-led, most spin-driven, most soul-destroying spectacle in the UK’s contemporary political history. And that it should culminate in an MP being murdered in broad daylight on the streets of her electorate – on the streets where she was raised – is the grimmest thing of all.

But this sorry episode won’t end when the final votes are counted on (hopefully) Friday. Whatever the result, the UK will be destabilised for years to come.

The UK was late to the European party, through a mix of its own misgivings and the original members’ reluctance to enlarge the union beyond its core membership of mostly mutually bordering states. It eventually joined the European Communities after a 1972 act of parliament authorised the signing of the treaty — Europhile Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath wielded the pen.

A Labour minority government came to power in 1974, pledging to renegotiate the treaty and hold a referendum on it. Labour was split, the Tories were united (but not totally) in support of the EC, and two-thirds of voters backed UK membership.

Europe’s changed a lot since that time. For a start, it became the European Union. It’s created a single market for goods and more or less for services — the UK leading the way. It’s enlarged, taking in first the post-fascist states of southern Europe, then those who were always eligible but waited even longer than the UK, then ten new members (mostly from the other side of the old iron curtain) in 2004, and a few more since.

There’s the Schengen accords on free movement across internal EU borders (which the UK and Ireland opted out of). And there’s EU law, negotiated painstakingly to try and make this single market a level playing field for all, and passed by the directly-but-apathetically elected European Parliament and national parliaments. So it’s a very different beast now to what it was then.

The British Conservatives switched sides in the 80s, under Margaret Thatcher, and became very reluctant participants. Some wanted out. Most agreed half-heartedly to stay in. A few were keen, and viewed with suspicion as a result. Labour discovered an enthusiasm for Europe under Tony Blair, completing the turnaround. But overall the UK’s always been lukewarm — the kid who turns up for cricket only so his team will have 11.

UK 'Brexit' referendum: A look back at UK's tricky relationship with EU

Throughout the 90s and 2000s the right became more eurosceptic, aided of course by our wonderful national press, ever eager to place the blame for anything at the door of foreigners, those deemed to lack patriotism, foreigners, people who don’t speak English, anyone easily cast as the other. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, is of course, a leading light here.

Fast forward to David Cameron taking office in coalition with the Europhile but ineffectual Liberal Democrats in 2010. The Tories were increasingly threatened in the less comfortable bits of their comfortable southern heartland by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a vehicle for the oily ultranationalist Nigel Farage — who somehow casts himself as an anti-establishment figure despite a public school education and expanding his father’s fortune during a career as a City trader.

The 2010 intake of Tory MPs were forged in the heat of the battle against UKIP, and those who weren’t thinking of defecting were basically identical on policy anyway. Cameron needed something to spike their guns, and found it — he promised to renegotiate the UK’s terms of EU membership and put them to a new referendum if a Conservative government resulted from the 2015 election.

The polls said it wouldn’t come to that — that Labour were ahead, and a hung parliament most likely. But Labour’s leader was useless (though not as useless as the Murdoch press and others painted him), and the Tories turned it all over and got back in with a small majority. Cameron was now stuck with his pledge. He decided to go early, rather than give the Leave campaign two years to build momentum. So here we are.

Most Conservative MPs support staying, though this is probably more to do with wanting jobs under Cameron or whoever comes after him than anything else. The Leave campaign is led by two Conservative ministers — Michael Gove, whom journalists insist is one of the sharpest political minds of his generation, even though everything he’s touched so far turns to dust. Gove, of course, was once a journalist. So was the other key Leave figure, Boris Johnson, who found the time to earn £250k a year writing a column for the Telegraph while mayor of London. Gove and Johnson have distanced Farage from the official campaign, but he’s carried on regardless, being as crass and unpleasant as ever.

Labour is more (though not totally) united in the Remain camp, even though the frequently useless leader Jeremy Corbyn tends to damn with faint praise when asked to talk up the benefits of EU membership.

The actual argument has been dismal. It’s boiled down to the Remain camp saying “you’d be loads worse off if we left”, while the Leave camp shout “immigrants!” and “take control!” as often as they can. There’s some sense in that stance: the UK was one of the first countries to allow free movement of labour to the countries who joined in 2004, and large numbers of Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians and others came to work at the bottom end of the labour market — the archetypal Aussie barman in a London pub in the 70s and 80s is now probably Lithuanian. 

This has placed pressure on public services, but probably not as much pressure as has been placed by Cameron’s government slashing their funding. Some say it’s kept wages down for British workers, others deny this. Claim and counter-claim. Ad infinitum.

As for the public, they mostly want it to be over. Walking from my home to my tube station in London, I pass just over 300 houses, counted one night while tipsy, because I’m a fun guy. Many are split into apartments. There are ten posters in windows. Ten. Only one for Leave.

Out in the country it’s somewhat different, with Leave predominating and more interest visible overall, but this is not one of those referendums that grips the nation in wonderful political debate.

The Scottish referendum in 2014 did, even if most of that was nonsense too, and Scotland will be pretty sure to seek another vote if the UK does Leave. Turning our backs on one union and breaking up another. Great work, Gove.

British MP Jo Cox was assassinated in West Yorkshire on June 16th. An armed man shouted “Britain first” before shooting her. 

The murder of Jo Cox illustrated the deeper truth about this referendum — it’s ill-conceived and divisive, and lays a lot of the UK’s uglier elements bare. Cox advocated more humane treatment of Syrian refugees – her murderer shouted "Britain First!" – long a far-right slogan and now the name of the biggest extremist party.

The bitterness evident in both campaigns will persist even if Remain wins (and it has a knife-edge lead in the last polls), and it’s going to be difficult for the Tories to re-establish unity.

With Corbyn just too left-wing to be palatable to the whole electorate, this matters, as however unpleasant David Cameron’s Tory government is, Boris Johnson’s, without the constraints of EU law, would be far worse.

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