June 23rd 2016. After a fractious period of debate, the voters of Great Britain head for the ballot boxes. Some for various reasons have already recorded a postal vote
THis morning, I made the few minute drive to the community hall through a construction landscape which will eventually turn into a new village, complete with shops and assorted facilities. Susan, who likes to be early, seems to have set off to get there for 7am, official start-time for voting.
On this critical day it is hard to remember much further than the start of the official campaign no more than a few weeks ago, Brexit was seen as a rather remote possibility. Today the commentators believe the result is too close to call.
Cause and effect
Historians and social scientists alike are wary of finding simple cause effect mechanisms to predict outcomes (although some are tempted to do so in explaining the past).
A widely shared view is that the global economic crisis of 2007-8 was followed by unpleasant changes around the world. A growing disenchantment with the dominant political parties was evidenced in the rise of fringe parties to the left, right, and distrust turning to loathing by the under-privileged. The EU struggled after its noble goals of free movement of people, and political unity around a shared set of democratic values. The goals were increasingly less salient as its weaker nation states had to accept unpalatable economic terms. Greece remains closest to the brink, but Spain, Italy, and Ireland were seen as potential dominoes that would fall with the wider venture.
The economic troubles in Europe were compounded by the tensions of the middle east where the liberation movements of 2005 Arab Spring had mostly withered. Intervention efforts became less politically acceptable after the consequences particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan
In grim shorthand, Europe became a hope for survival for increasing numbers of refugees, presenting unanticipated social pressures to those already there.
A phoney war broke out when in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron announced his government’s intention to hold a referendum. It is now widely assumed that the Prime Minister and close allies including the chancellor, George Osborn felt it the best way to deal with increasing noises from inside the party, showing a willingness to quit the European Union. This was seen as a re-run of the Conservative right’s fundamental belief in reclaiming Britain’s independence from what they see as a politically dangerous and economically bungling super-state.
Cameron’s hand was weakened by the wider rise of smaller parties. A Scottish referendum about Scottish Independence, again reluctantly granted, strengthened Scottish Nationalism in a close fight.
Another signal that both Conservative and Labour were facing major weakening changes was a defection of voters to the Independence party UKIP. A crucial incident which did not seem so important at the time, was the result of the European elections in May 2014. UKIP won a majority of UK seats
Who wanted the referendum?
My conclusion, after following the political commentaries on a daily basis, is that few people really wanted a referendum. It was a political decision. The Prime-Minister’s opponents inside his party suspected (rightly as it turned out) that he was offering a move to prevent departure from the hated EU.
Memories play tricks. I had to check to confirm that it was less than six months ago that David Cameron stated his intention of leading his party in fighting for a Remain vote in the Referendum.
His cunning plan began to backfire, as the popular press media lined up largely with his opponents. This was less unexpected, as the influential Sun and Daily Mail led in a relentless campaign to Save Britain, gain control of our borders, stop the immigrants who were taking jobs, putting strains on ‘our’ services.
Nastiness trumps debate
The so-called great debate degenerated into nastiness on both sides. At a personal level I found little appetite for much debate. Truth is trumped by narratives. No pun intended, but there are similarities with the Presidential campaign waged in the USA. Truth is trumped by narratives.
This week, the campaign has been simplified as a decision mostly influenced of two sets of beliefs. The one is about the economic consequences of leaving, the other about having more control over the numbers and sorts of people who are arriving and staying here. Both have dominated the numerous debates with incantations from speakers, mostly tiresomely-and tirelessly parroting well-rehearsed dog-whistle phrases.
Winners and losers
Perhaps by a smidgeon, the angry and hurt Leave voters will be listened to a little more in future. This requires better leaders to emerge than they have at present. But ultimately, the dreams being promised seem as unlikely as the threats. Project fear and project hate ended up struggling in the mud they churned up.
Among the politicians, Boris Johnson may survive his remarkable conversion to reluctant leader. Maybe he understands Coriolanus better than I.
Nicola Sturgeon continues to show considerable media gifts and for the moment she remains untested with the sort of problems that faced Cameron. Jeremy Corbyn has done little to consolidate his position for the long-term, (i.e. to get close enough to the next election to survive a leadership challenge).
Nigel Farage even more than Boris is remarkably resistant to accusations of mendacity. This is a difficult skill to acquire. Boris is inclined to use another successful tactic of switching to little boy who means no harm mode if facing a tough question. This is a difficult skill to acquire.
And maybe, the biggest winners were those who tried to make some sense of the issues, before deciding which way to vote.