This first appeared on the Facebook page
There’s still two months until we vote, but the EU Referendum has been an absolute mess. Rather than a broad, fact-based debate about the role we play in the European Union, we’ve had personality politics and childish insults.
This weekend Boris Johnson has claimed that the American president’s Kenyan ancestry motivates a hatred for Britain, and followed it up by calling Obama ‘weird’. This isn’t so much the pot calling the kettle black as the pot calling the dinner-plate black.
Johnson is not alone in his indifference for facts.
Dominic Cummings, apparently notorious for his previous role at the Department for Education is now the campaign director of Vote Leave. When testifying before a House of Commons select committee he said that “I don’t think it’s Vote Leave’s job to provide figures”.
When told that “Vote Leave quotes numerous figures on its website … most of them misleading or inaccurate”, Cummings responded that: “Accuracy is for snake-oil pussies.”
That’s not to say that the Remain campaign have been much better. George Osborne has always been a twister and misinterpretter of figures. For example, a tax-rate cut in 2013-14 was declared a massive success for taking in more money at a lower rate, despite the Office for Budget Responsibility predicting in advance that corporations would defer payments from 2012-13 so the money could be taxed at the lower rate.
Osborne has recently claimed that each family will be £4300 a year better off in the EU.
The £4300 figure has been described by the politically neutral Full Fact as “an unhelpful summary of the underlying research”, but the document estimates that the UK economy will be between 4.6% and 7.8% smaller in 2030 than if we remain in the EU.
The thing is, this is actually a good argument for remaining, but Osborne is so intent on controlling the story that the report wasn’t released to the press until the £4300 figure had been drilled into the public consciousness.
And beyond that, the fact-based debates we’ve had in the mainstream media have nearly all focused on the corporate vision of our place in the world. It is possible to find articles and interviews with organisers from groups like Diem.25 and Another Europe is possible, but the politically active have to search out these arguments, rather than having them presented in a medium where the politically un-engaged can find them.
That should be the role of the media – to present all reasonable arguments to the public, not merely to encourage the public to internalise the values of the global super-rich.
Even Barrack Obama, one of the smoothest political operators of his generation, has possibly done more harm than good, with his statement that Britain would go to “the back of the queue” in negotiating trade deals were we to exit the EU. Whether or not it was intended that way, we’ve seen a number of undecided voters take this as a threat. And given that the main trade deal in question, TTIP, has a deal of notoriety among the people who are familiar with it, many will take the warning/threat of going to the back of the queue as an incentive to vote Leave.
In an ideal world, the £9m leaflet produced at taxpayer expense would summarise the key arguments of each side – how much EU membership costs, how that’s offset by rebates, the good that our tax money does in poorer parts of the continent, how the EU functions, how reformers believe it could be made to function, the options for trade deals outside of the European Union and who would be in charge of negotiating them, the cost of membership in the European Economic Area (alongside Norway) rather than the EU.
The EU Referendum has been a missed opportunity to re-energise our democracy, to encourage greater political engagement.
But that’s not surprising really. This was not a referendum that David Cameron wanted, or even one he respected the need for. It was a referendum he felt he had to promise in order to satisfy those opposed to EU membership within his own party, and prevent leakage of voters towards UKIP.
It’s just disappointing that such a vital decision will be made in an atmosphere not conducive to rational decision-making.