Mea Culpa

This is a cross-post by James Snell

Over a year ago, I made a very optimistic prediction. During the 2015 election campaign, when the Conservatives proposed holding a referendum on our EU membership, the then Labour leadership and others united to say that it would be a bad idea. They said it would be divisive, that it would harm the very democracy it was intended to strengthen, and that virtually nothing good could come out of the exercise.

I said they were wrong; I said referendums were good in that the provided powerful mandates for government action; and I said that, as in the Scottish referendum campaign, the issue would at least be settled, regardless of the result. I was wrong in all three of those suggestions. I was badly, terribly wrong. And now, as the bitter result of a poisonous and unpleasant campaign is laid before us, I am also certain that many of those who also advocated in favour of the referendum are now having second thoughts.

In a phrase which is used all too much – yet also not enough – Clement Attlee said that referendums were ‘the device of demagogues and dictators’. Margaret Thatcher quoted him with approval on that subject. And it is fundamentally correct. In Third World countries referendums can prove to be, when sufficiently influenced by those in power, a rubber stamp on continued bad governance. The binary choice leads itself to simplifications, all of which remove the true complexity of liberty and self-government. Elections where only one candidate or result is permitted have in many ways a similar effect. There’s something horribly restrictive about it – something reductionist. And this reductionism assists only the partisan; it helps spread tribalism and extreme ideology, but it does not help the people of this country.

What we are in effect breeding here is yet another simmering national hatred, yet another tension to disfigure public life. Rather than providing a valve to lessen the pressure, this referendum has increased that pressure. No longer is the European Union a fact of life; now the debate has been pushed to the extremes: it is either an evil institution smothering Britain and threatening to pack our country full of Turks, or the sole reason Britain is doing better than Venezuela at the present time. Debate has been pushed to the extremes. There are no other options.

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