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Re-arranging the deck-chairs

Overnight – simply because I had gone to bed so early that I woke up again about 11.30pm – I had my first opportunity in a while to listen to Radio Five Live’s Question Time Extra Time hosted by Stephen Nolan and political correspondent Chris Mason. As the title implies, this is an off-shoot follow-up programme to BBC1 television’s long-running Question Time show hosted by David Dimbleby which allows members of the public to phone in and react to or comment upon the arguments made in the latter.

The ‘issue of the moment’ (hardly surprising this) was the EU summit at which David Cameron is struggling to deliver some sort of deal with the rest of Europe that will enable him – at least this is what I imagine he’s thinking – to persuade the UK’s wavering Referendum voters that he’s done enough to permanently ‘change’ the EU to make it worth us staying in.

Even though, of course, we all know that he’s always been 100% in favour of staying in anyway, as has been the rest of the British Establishment.

Within a few minutes, however, courtesy of the callers-in, the programme had become an opportunity to listen to some of the early arguments about the benefits of staying within the EU – or indeed coming out – that are going to feature in the Referendum whenever it takes place – and on this, I keep hearing 23rd June being mentioned.

For a listener trying his best to remain impartial it was a pretty depressing experience.

I’m fully aware of the received opinion that, as with all late-night or overnight programmes, one has – and ought to – make general allowance for the fact that the available constituency for phoners-in is by definition going to be largely composed of the sort of thick, or insomniac, or misguided, or ill-informed, or pissed, or loony, or indeed saddo members of the British public like myself who operate at ungodly hours, who are still awake (and functioning to some degree) at this time of the day, when ‘all good men and true’ are, or should be, fast asleep.

However, as it happened upon this occasion, the callers soon split into two camps, both of whom had plainly already made up their minds and were never going to listen to those of a contrary opinion, let alone be persuaded by their points and arguments.

The first – and I’m not taking these in any order of precedence –  were the pro-EU-ers.

These were uniformly of the view that – whatever the perceived complications, frustrations, stupidities, unfairnesses, illogicalities, or indeed lack of resulting independence for the UK that EU membership entails – (1) we were effectively part of the EU and should just get on with it; and (2) that if we left the EU we would not only be far worse off, but would face an uncertain and much-diminished future. Yes, Great Britain might have been a great nation (trading-wise, Empire-wise and military-wise) once, but that was a hell of a long time ago – we should ‘get over it’ – and face the fact that there was greater security in every sense to be had in us being a single cog in some Big Wheel the size of Europe than there was by withdrawing back into the ‘splendid isolation’ (sorry, obscurity) of being outside the EU and effectively ‘outside’ the way that 21st Century geo-politics general was going.

Chris Mason and Stephen Nolan

Chris Mason and Stephen Nolan

At one point, one of the callers of this mind – a self-announced black gentleman originally from the West Indies who spoke in a classic cut-glass, upper class, English accent – commented that those who wanted out of the EU effectively wanted to return the UK to the 1950s when women were housewives rarely left the home, the toffs wore bowler hats and pin-stripe suits, and the ‘working classes’ wore flat caps, worked down coal pits for little money and spent their leisure time (and meagre wages) on stout, football or gambling on horses or greyhounds.

In the other corner of the ring were the anti-EU mob.

The easiest way to characterise their attitude is probably to imagine Nigel Farage down the lounge bar of his local pub, holding forth about everything that is wrong about the EU and its vast, ocean-liner style, undemocratically-accountable bureaucracy, (1) de facto from a supposedly-impartial viewpoint; and (2) especially for the UK.

From this viewpoint, in 1975 the UK was duped into becoming what it thought was simply a trading partnership first time around, but which secretly was always intended to become some sort of unstoppable, elite Establishment, non-democratic, Big Brother ‘project’ whereby a great political/economic entity was constructed as a means of achieving … well, what? Nobody was quite sure. All that we in the UK know is that it involves us giving away all our sovereignty, national identity and money – so that the EU monolith can keep its weakest flotsam & jetsam member nations from going to the economic wall and then pretend to the world that it acts with one identity and viewpoint. If we could get out of the UK – as we can do via this Referendum – we could act in our own national interest, do as well economically in-or-out of the EU, and at a stroke get rid of our obligation to give the EU all our money and in return get absolutely zip of any consequence, well except loads of red tape and, bureaucratic rules and European court decisions that stab at the very fundamentals of British law and notions of justice.

What am I tapping all this out for the benefit of Rust readers this morning?

Well, simply because I have rarely heard such a ‘festival’ of opposing ranting ill-informed opinions coming over the airwaves. Nobody was listening to anything anyone else said. They all tried to shout over each other. At times Stephen Nolan was having a hard time of it trying to ‘referee’ and keep the peace. What’s more, he’s an intelligent broadcaster and I am sure, in the depth of the studio from which he was operating, he was metaphorically ‘shaking his head’ in disbelief and exasperation at the general shallowness of the arguments being put by both sides.

I also have to say that, well before the programme had reached half-way, I was involuntarily being  taken back to a conviction that – if this programme was seriously representative of the state of the UK public – frankly, universal suffrage was a much overrated commodity as a means by which human beings might govern themselves.

About Simon Campion-Brown

A former lecturer in politics at Keele University, Simon now lives in Oxfordshire. Married with two children, in 2007 he decided to monitor the Westminster village via newspaper and television and has never looked back. More Posts