Last night I watched the BBC big EU Referendum set piece The Great Debate at 8.00pm on BBC1, featuring David Dimbleby as host; a cast of about 8,000 voters in the audience at Wembley Arena; and Boris Johnson, Labour MP Gisela Stuart and Tory minister Andrea Leadsom representing ‘Leave’ and Scot Tory leader Ruth Davidson, London mayor Sadiq Khan and TUC secretary Frances O’Grady representing ‘Remain’ as the principal protagonists. At the back of the hall Michele Hussein stood on a mini-platform with matching panels of the great and good representing each side who were periodically invited to add their sixpennyworth.
If Rust readers seek a blow-by-blow review of what happened, I am sure that nipping along to their newspaper or news website of choice will provide them with everything they need.
My piece today concerns some overnight thoughts I have had on the event – and indeed the Referendum campaign generally. I came to the realisation that it just wasn’t the type of event, or campaign, or indeed democratic exercise, from which a clear victor would ever emerge.
Instead, for me, this Referendum campaign has shown the British democratic election process at its worst.
I’m not just referring to the uniqueness of the ‘In/Out’ (either/or) choice involved in a referendum question because I think my conclusion actually applies to all British elections, whether for local council positions or indeed at General Elections. However, last night’s debate certainly magnified the issues and the revelation.
I’ve mentioned this before, but last night’s event underscored the point that it’s traditional for British campaigners to preach to the converted, to pander to their own supporters’ prejudices, to peddle the received ‘truths’ that their side of the argument hold to their breasts most fervently.
They all assume that they have an exclusive line straight to the truth – and that the other side are making everything up. There’s no other explanation that adequately covers the ‘You did, you didn’t’ accusations going back and forth as the debate heated up and inevitably embraced the childish and petty point-scoring reminiscent of a GCSE-year level school mooting contest.
Let me cite just two examples to illustrate my case:
A major plank in the Remain team’s attack upon their opponents was the allegation that at no point during the campaign had the Leavers ever told the public what their economic plan was – in other words, their pitch to the electorate was nothing more than a ‘Vote for us, it’ll all be all right …’ rallying cry without any substance at all. This was de facto indisputable. The Leavers had previously offered little other than ‘We’ll busk it’ and last night did so once again.
On the other hand, simultaneously, the Leavers characterised the Remainers’ message to the public as ‘Yes the EU is pretty bloody awful, but in the 21st Century the UK would sink like a stone in importance if it wasn’t in it, so therefore we must stay …’ which, if you think about it, is just about as negative a thrust as you could possibly devise. It didn’t matter how many ‘expert’ or ‘celebrity’ opinions were lined up behind the Remainers’ stance, the Leavers were able to dismiss them as a bunch of self-interested meddlers who ‘would say that, wouldn’t they?’
The second example was the subject of what might be termed ‘workers rights’.
The Remainers made a big thing last night of the claim that the EU had enabled great progressive strides to be made in the areas of employment security, including for part-time workers, the working time directive, worker benefits and so on. If Brexit were to happen, there’d be nothing to stop the Leavers from tearing up all these EU protections and returning the UK workplace generally to the era of dark Satanic mills, slave-labour conditions, chimney sweep boys and poor houses.
In response to this the Leavers pointed out that many of the rights being mentioned had first been enacted by British governments of different hues over the past seventy years anyway – governments which at least, if their actions had proved sufficiently unpopular, could have been (as indeed they could be in the future) turfed out by the electorate at the next available election. Not something that could ever happen to the faceless bureaucrats of the EU.
On both these examples – for which I am suggesting there were two justifiable and rational opposing arguments – neither team was ever going to gain a slam-dunk victory, whether judged by David Dimbleby on the night or say by a panel of impartially-chosen economic gurus imported for the purpose.
As a result, all we onlookers were left with was the spectacle of the Remainers being frequently heckled or interrupted by the Leavers hurling systematic abuse and/or derision … and indeed vice versa.
After about twenty minutes – with only half of the first topic (the economy) done and two others (i.e. immigration and ‘Britain’s place in the world’) still to come – for this viewer the die was cast.
It was plain that little enlightenment, still less any ‘game changer’ moment, would be forthcoming, irrespective of whether the contest was to be stopped there and then by the referee ‘to save the viewers from further punishment’ or continued for another 48 hours in the existing messy, shouty, ‘Ya, Boo, Sucks!’ sort of mode.
In short, as hinted above, I was moved to semi-depression after retiring to bed last night at the conclusion of the programme.
The political cohorts and practitioners of the UK are as set in their ways as if they were neck-deep in concrete.
For the Labour Party, any government but one of their own inevitably wrecks the lives of ordinary people and seeks to advance the cause of the rich and powerful at the expense of the downtrodden masses.
For the Tory Party, any government but a Tory one – as night follows day – automatically makes a pig’s ear of the economy by spending money it doesn’t have (but has to borrow) on building up the public sector … then eventually goes bust and gets thrown out at the next election … whereupon the Tories have to restore the economy to health. The irony of this situation is that, to do this, it has to take the tough and unpopular decisions that the Labour Party wouldn‘t have the balls or intelligence to take … and thereby sows the seeds of its eventual downfall when, at the next available election, the Labour Party gets back in and the merry-go-round begins again.
My summary? Whichever side wins the EU Referendum when its result is announced on Friday morning, the reasons for its victory will have far more to do with the electorate’s gut feelings and self-interest than any impartial process whereby either side’s arguments have been being road-tested and balanced to decide which of them is more compelling.