It’s fair to say that the debates surrounding the referendum to determine the UK’s future within the European Union were noisy and overwhelmingly negative.
The campaign to convince UK voters to remain in the EU was referred to as ‘project fear’ by Leave campaigners or Brexiteers as they came to be known (from the term ‘Brexit’—Britain’s exit). But it wasn’t like the Leave camp was any better when it came to dirty tricks and the tactics of terror. Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader behind the movement to leave the EU, cynically used the image of a long and winding throng of Middle Eastern refugees on their way to Britain to hammer home his point. It was like an arms race: someone would threaten Britain with immigrant hordes and a subsequent increase in terrorism; another would counter with the promise of mass unemployment, the destruction of the NHS, economic meltdown and so on. The prophets of doom even warned of a nuclear apocalypse for Britain courtesy of the Russian President, Vladimir the Terrible, if Britain voted Leave.
Rational discussion and informative debate often went out the window, and politicians sometimes reverted to the kind of fire and brimstone sermons that ministers delivered in the old days to keep the parishioners in order. The whole tone was heavy and oppressive, sometimes hysterical, and sank to the very depths when a young, up-and-coming female Labour MP, who had campaigned to remain in the EU, was viciously cut down in the street by a man with fascist sympathies who appeared to support Brexit.
However, try as they might, the Remain campaign just could not quite win the ordinary voter over; and especially, the white working class. Several years of austerity and belt-tightening made Britain’s poorest very suspicious of the economic benefits of free movement. Others were deeply sceptical of the European Union’s democratic credentials. And nobody seemed able to demystify the mind boggling complexity of EU bureaucracy, nor justify its astronomical cost.
Even if the EU was an ultra-efficient, slick running, totally transparent, democratic masterpiece of international cooperation, the English would have probably voted against it reflexively according to their inbred xenophobia. As Orwell pointed out in 'The Lion and the Unicorn', the English mistrust of foreigners is legendary. Continental culture, sophistication and sipping coffee or wine whilst exchanging pleasantries is still, surprisingly, anathema to a lot of English; and our football supporters make it perfectly plain how they feel when confronted by a civilised society abroad. After the vote to leave there was a spike in xenophobic incidents.
At times it seems that this referendum was artificially polarising the British people into two camps: the backward thinking Eurosceptics at odds with the progressive Europhiles. But is every person that voted to leave a xenophobe? And are we really dependent on Eastern European immigration because the English are inveterately feckless and lazy? Isn’t this simple and crude dichotomy not only false but actually quite dangerous? Furthermore, isn’t the opportunity to vote for something that might look democratic but isn’t obviously so on closer inspection, just a bit paradoxical? Isn't there a case for characterising the intellectual essence of this debate as something more akin to Eurocrats v Democrats? Wouldn't that be a more reasonable characterisation?
A referendum or plebiscite is a rare opportunity to exercise democracy in its purest sense, and politicians are clearly loathed to defer important decisions to the will of the people (the plebs) because many so-called public servants who claim to represent the electorate’s will, clearly do not. They would rather prescribe what they think people ought to want rather than listening to what people actually want. Many consider themselves specialists, like doctors or lawyers, who act in the best interests of their clients—ultimately, they apparently know what’s best.
This rare experiment in absolute democracy has caused a shockwave through the Establishment and exposes the real fault-lines in British politics, which don’t actually fall along traditional party political lines, but are roughly forming into two distinct divisions: Eurocrats and Democrats. Prime ministers and leaders have resigned, countries and parties are splitting, former friends and allies are hostile toward each other and families are divided in a way Britain hasn’t experienced since the 17th century—and it seems to hinge on the perennial question hanging over England since at least the Elizabethan era: that of sovereignty and unaccountable power.