This has all become a terrible mess. We are having a referendum for no particularly good reason, it has hit democracy on all of its weak spots and degenerated into such a cavalcade of misrepresentation that it is hard to see anything good coming out of it.
Its origins lie in the run-up to the last general election, and it has continued as a knife fight among the present cabinet. Most obviously it is the child of a serious split on the right of British politics, and it is more about the deep fissures between capitalism and nationalism than anything else.
As a result we are essentially having a general election by proxy, and the British public appear to be about to elect the hardest right government we have had in generations, something it would never do at any national poll. The issues have been skewed so badly that the moderate right pitch about prosperity has been entirely swept away by the hard right fear of immigration. Well done boys, break my country why don’t you?
Referendums are a very mixed blessing. They should be about simple issues, like the voting system, where arguments can actually sway people, and office is not at stake. Here we have a disproportionate amount of passion on one side and a limp hope for the better on the other. That’s not clever in politics. It’s also dumb to put up an issue that doesn’t need to be decided now, and is of such complexity that it should be taken by a government. All the other decisions about the European project have been taken by Prime Ministers in cabinet – all of whom since Macmillan have been pro-European, and none of them stood for election on that specific issue. The European project has never been a high priority for any of Britain’s voters, except those at the fringes of left and right who have always seen it as a conspiracy of some kind.
Now in the middle of a global revolt against elites, we are asking an apparently simple question to an electorate that is so riled up that it can’t disentangle entirely unconnected issues, and is being encouraged to conflate them by deliberate spin-doctoring – so that the NHS and Premiership football have moved into questions about international relations.
So, the reasoning, the question, the timing, and the conduct of this campaign are all bad in their ways. And we can see again, exactly as in the Scottish event of two years ago, that the whole idea of optimism is being abused. One person’s optimism is another’s delusional, hyperventilating fantasy. As with Scottish independence, leaving will solve almost nothing. We will recover economically either way. But what will be lost is harder to see, as is persuading people of its value.
Last thing. If Brexit wins, if the optimistic, confident, patriotic pitch is persuasive, if we smash up so many things at once, is it reasonable to assume that all the pieces will fall where we want them to?