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The Spectator's Notes

In praise of referendums – this one in particular

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: the Leave and Remain campaigns; inaccurate electoral registers; Tim Farron; the Queen

25 June 2016

8:00 AM

25 June 2016

8:00 AM

Commentators have complained about this referendum — its ‘lies’, bad manners, bitterness. Without exactly disagreeing, I would nevertheless argue that it has performed at least one of the roles intended, which is to encourage people to consider the issue. If you are actively engaged in political debate, as candidate, activist, journalist etc, you believe (often erroneously) that you have thought through the big questions. If you are an unpolitical voter, you often haven’t. This is particularly true of the European question because, for 40 years, enormous efforts have been made by all the political parties to discourage you. David Cameron only finally conceded to us the right to have our say because, for internal party reasons, he was desperate. So, in the last few months, millions have been focusing seriously on something on which, since 1975, their opinion had not been sought. My impression is that most of them have caught up fast and have held better debates about it than those on television. Some snooty persons complain about ‘plebiscitary democracy’, but how else can a key constitutional issue be dealt with when the main parties do not represent the views of roughly half the country?

It wasn’t only the voters who were unused to dealing with the matter. It was also both sides of the campaign. The Remain people had given almost no thought to why they want us to be in the EU, other than the imagined horrors of leaving. If they did privately believe in the United States of Europe which most eurozone leaders crave, they felt it was more than their political life was worth to say so. Tory Remainers, in particular, had spent so many years moaning about the EU that they could scarcely find the right words to explain why it was suddenly essential to our national survival. Ministers like Theresa May and Sajid Javid seemed especially contemptible in this respect, and Mr Cameron seemed comical. He forgot about his supposedly tough, supposed victory for a ‘reformed Europe’ the day after he supposedly won it. By the end of the campaign he had moved from stern critic of Brussels to babbler about an optimism he had never previously displayed. George Osborne was truly shocking — the only Chancellor of the Exchequer who has ever clubbed together with the Governor of the Bank of England to talk down the economy they propose to go on running. If I were a Remain supporter, I would have no hero from this campaign, except for Ruth Davidson, and the BBC, many of whose staff worked above, beyond — and, indeed, against — the call of duty for the sake of the EU. The classic BBC news formulation was to lead with a Remain story and then, in the interests of ‘fairness’, give the Leave reply, e.g. ‘Leave campaigners denied last night that they were hate-filled’.


The Leave side was also unready for the referendum, not only because Mr Cameron had made it difficult for his ministers to declare themselves before the last moment. Although British Eurosceptics have examined for 30 years why the EU is bad for monetary arrangements, open markets, tax competition and policy innovation, Leave was not equipped for the inevitable deluge of ‘What if…’ economic questions. The decline in the relative prosperity of the EU is one of its most notable 21st-century achievements, but this message was almost lost, making those who want to get Britain out look as if they desired the terrible fate of being ‘poor, but honest’. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Daniel Hannan and Gisela Stuart all had good arguments, delivered in good-natured tones, and a campaign which, thanks to the wrongly maligned Dominic Cummings, withstood incredible pressure. But Leave lacked reassuring depth — the experts who can come forward and say, ‘Yes, we’ve thought about this, and here is the answer.’

The rules of referendums proved dangerously loose. It was wrong that public money could be spent on publishing the case for Remain, but not the case for Leave. It was dubious that campaigns to get people to register could happen so late in the day and in a style designed to get more Remain people to sign up. It was dreadful that the computer systems could not cope with the last-minute rush this campaign created, and that a political decision could be made to extend the deadline. There was little care about accurate registers: we are not far off the day when the results will be impossible to respect, and so the purpose of voting will be nullified. This corruption was advanced under the banner of ‘diversity’ and encouraging the young.

The second saddest thing in the campaign, after the death of Jo Cox, was the debasement of the currency of grief. Here is Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, emailing the world last Friday: ‘This morning with my kids all I could think about was the family who’ve woken up with their lives changed forever. Yesterday a mum, who left home to do her job to serve her constituents, was cruelly and brutally taken from them… When something terrible happens, I feel it. I am not one of those who shies away from emotion.’ When asked to declare how much she loves her father, Cordelia says, ‘Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.’ I suppose Shakespeare must be trying to tell us that she shies away from emotion. No such inhibitions for terribly-upset Tim, the man of feeling.

A concerned country neighbour emailed with a last-minute suggestion. Couldn’t all the anti-EU newspapers agree to fill their front pages on polling day solely with the words ‘God Save The Queen — Vote Leave’? I thought not, I had to tell him, because the only sacred doctrine among newspapers is not to agree with rivals. Besides, one must not be ‘plus royaliste que la Reine’. All she has done, it is reported, is to ask dinner guests to give her three reasons why we should stay in the EU. Like her famous question about the banking crisis, ‘Why didn’t anyone see it coming?’, she has put the right people on the spot.


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