It is possibly too late for reasoned argument about BREXIT. But earlier last week BBC Radio 4’s Today programme began describing clearly for listeners what one possible option for staying in the single European Market after BREXIT might mean: the path taken by Norway. The BBC is fulfilling its Reithian role to inform and educate a public otherwise badly served by the studied vagueness or strident argument of many politicians and their supporters. The other sources of constructive thinking and good governance are the Bank of England and Parliamentary Select Committees, notably Exiting the EU and Home Affairs.
The British public has almost never heard inspiring accounts of the values that the EU tries to embody, nor the benefits that have accrued to the UK from its membership, nor the Security, workplace and human rights protections afforded EU citizens. There has rarely been any thoughtful analysis of the nature of sovereignty in the modern world, nor has immigration been discussed dis-aggregated into asylum seekers, economic migrants, future NHS and social care staff, seasonal agricultural labour and students. Nor has the way the different European Courts relate to EU member states and our own judicial system been adequately explained. The field has been left to tendentious, generalized and usually inaccurate assertions on issues of great concern for Leave voters.
Indeed even delving into such matters is likely to identify the interlocutor as a member of ‘the elite’ wishing to impose their undemocratic dominance on hard-working British people, and conspiring to thwart the popular will. Any presentation of data or attempt to inform becomes “an affront to democracy”. Yet, in reality, the greatest threat to democracy comes from the relentless push for BREXIT at any cost.
Democratic political systems offer citizens the greatest freedom of expression, personal liberty and responsibility consonant with public order. Democracy is also the least bad way of getting rid of governments that fail to work for the Common Good. There is much more to sustaining a democratic culture than organizing elections and counting votes. Unfortunately for democracy to work for the Common Good, there must be an informed electorate; it’s unfortunate because the forces at play to keep electorates misinformed are now more diverse and powerful than ever. The British print media are probably no better, no worse today than in the past. But they are apparently the most mistrusted in Europe and it is hard to believe newspapers such as the Daily Mail, Sun, and Daily Express do not amplify and contribute to xenophobia and the growing deepening divisions within British society, not least about BREXIT.
Before, during and after the Referendum campaign, politicians have thought nothing of promoting unconscionable propaganda: Turkey was about to become a EU member state and would decant its population into Britain; BREXIT would bring hundreds of millions of pounds into NHS coffers; old ladies were being denied emergency medical treatment because of the flood of immigrants, and so on. Or, from the other side, there would have to be an immediate emergency BREXIT budget following a Leave victory. This REMAIN contribution to misinformation did not impede George Osborne becoming editor of the Evening Standard. BREXIT has not been the cause of what is now widely described as a crisis of democracy. In this country it has merely revealed and contributed to the crisis.
The deterioration in the tone and language of public discussion is telling. The anonymity of social media has been a contributory factor leaking extremist and violent language into public discourse. Twitter postings from members of the ‘Metropolitan Elite’ now frequently abusive. Brexiteers call the judiciary traitors and public enemies when their judgements do not meet press barons’ approval. Pro-Brexit politicians invoke the Will of the People meaning only the 52% who voted Leave in a referendum debate shaped by outrageous propaganda. Have the 48% who voted Remain ceased to be the People? Aren’t these little tricks with words indicative of an indifference to growing social divisions? Lurching into populism, repeating this mantra, is apparently fine with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
Social media allows many good things but it creates silos and echo-chambers of non-communicating prejudices and cleverly targeted misinformation. It is still too early to determine if Russian cyber-interference played any part in the referendum but it is obvious that breaking up the EU – and NATO - is one of Putin’s major foreign policy objectives. It is likely that were there a second referendum he would indeed intervene.
If there is a second referendum, a logical and reasonable requirement after the known defects of the first, it should be the last. We have a representative democracy and a parliamentary system that, with all its flaws, works. Referendums are a recent addition to our electoral system and they do not enrich political life. We were pushed into this most recent referendum, by David Cameron who believed he could defeat the ultra-nationalists on the Tory back-benches, and by British anti-EU feeling dating back two decades. Cameron was wrong and now we are seeing the result.
It is too late and too difficult to back-track. Exploring and negotiating a Norway-type option – with the obvious national differences and potential disadvantages for the UK – may offer a consensual position that might plausibly represent the will of the British people and might minimize damage to our economy. It now seems the least damaging way forward. What we have at the moment is a hopeless fudge that was designed to hold the Tory Party together but will more likely break the country apart.