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Wednesday, June 22, 2016
The EU Referendum: do you believe in politics?
Looking at the propaganda from both sides over the referendum campaign, I wanted to make a final point about the nature of the question facing the people of the United Kingdom.
There are questions to which we cannot possibly know the answer, and have good reason not to believe the predictions of the campaigners on either side. These include the kind of trade deals the UK might or might not be able to negotiate, the effect of leaving the EU on questions like Northern Ireland's relationship with the Republic of Ireland (which has been sui generis since long before we joined the EU), and the ongoing careers of various politicians.
But there is something more straightforward which has come up again and again in different guises. It is the question of whether we believe in politics.
Here is one guise it comes in. The scientists and the farmers and the fishermen and the regions and all sorts of charitable bodies who and which get money from the EU have had to ask themselves: will they be worse off if we leave the EU? If we leave, it will be up to the UK government whether they go on getting the grants, and enjoy other advantageous arrangements, which they get today. The farmers and the fishermen and the regions seem to be more confident than not that they'd be ok. The scientists and the charities appear to be seriously scared.
It is hard not to conclude that the scientists and the charities believe, having thought about it, that they have no real case for getting this money, and that any sensible future UK government would turn off the taps. It is understandable that they should vote Remain, but quite baffling that they think this would be a reason for the country as a whole to vote Remain. It is, after all, the very same electorate voting in the referendum tomorrow which will be voting in the next general election, to choose the government and set the tone of policy towards this as towards everything else. These lobbies seem to be telling us voters not to trust ourselves.
Here is another manifestation of the issue. I've heard that EU laws on animal welfare or the environment or the protection of workers or any number of other issues, are frightfully good, and that this is a reason to stay in the EU. Presumably, the thinking is that, if we leave, future UK governments will have the option of tinkering with these laws, and that the people making this argument think that, all things considered, such tinkering would not be to the advantage of the lobbies they represent. Again, they are telling the voters in the referendum not to leave such questions to the judgment of voters in future general elections: themselves.
It is a strange argument, but not an entirely unfamiliar one. Sometimes people do vote to have less say. People vote in dictators, and vote to keep them. (The referendums to maintain the regimes of Louis Napoleon and Pinochet spring to mind.) Sometimes people vote in, or otherwise willingly accept, 'technocratic' governments, made up of people who haven't come up through the normal processes of party politics, but are plucked from universities and think tanks.
What is happening in these cases is a rejection of politics. People are saying in one big vote that they do not want a say about a lot of smaller things. They do this, usually, for a limited time in a moment of national crisis, either as a result of war or unrest, or because of the collapse of the normal political institutions as a result of endemic corruption or a breakdown of the rule of law. It is characteristic of such situations that the term 'politician' has become a term of abuse. The political class is no longer trusted. Voters would rather have a general or a university lecturer running things.
The first question for us is: have we got to that situation in the UK? Are things this bad? The second question is: does the EU represent a less partisan, less corrupt, and more competent system of government that what we are likely to come up with on our own?
I think those questions answer themselves. I don't have a great deal of trust in our current elected politicians, but the EU, to me, just looks like the worst aspects of them, in a form entirely above popular scrutiny, and answerable to no one. It may have given this or that person or lobby a sweet deal on this or that issue, but that is not a reason to give up on politics. Politics is a frustrating and dirty business, but it's not as bad, in normal circumstances, as no politics at all.
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