In a campaign which rapidly ran out of fresh things to say, Alex Bell reflects on some of what we have learnt
We are not special
In the run up to 2014 an idea took hold that the Brits were out to get us. A them-and-us mentality was adopted as it appeared everyone from David Bowie to President Obama was against Yes. It added to a sense that somehow Scotland was particularly brave for challenging vested interests, and there might be a global conspiracy against Caledonian autonomy.
Turns out we are not special. Global institutions are against any thing which bucks the general trend of cooperation. Pretty much the same forces which spoke against Scottish independence came out against British ‘independence’.
So much so that the Brexit camp were reduced to exactly the same paranoid mentality as Yes, in believing that the BBC was against them, events were being rigged and votes will be tampered. The lesson is that people on the change side are paranoid but that the global system is out to get them. The comfort is, they don’t have a particular grudge against Scots.
Brexit and Yes have the best words
‘Change’ is always more appealing than ‘don’t’. So to ‘better world’ as opposed to ‘risk’. When Yes and Brexit got into their strides, they found this uplifting language, slightly religious in tone, which offered a promised land. It worked much better in the debates than the language of the status quo camps.
Remain and No never found the positive, attractive version of their campaigns.
Eventually Yes and Brexit over-reached themselves. Yes in offering a magical economic picture, Brexit by descending into racism. Neither was capable of substantiating their vision of a ‘better world’.
Remain was dull
Bizarrely Remain hit on the idea that the way to defend membership of the EU was to talk up regulation. In the TV debates, Remainers would come back to the idea that workers rights, safety guidance, food standards and what have you could only exist within the union.
It is claim which is patently untrue – any government anywhere in the world could adopt those regulations. Indeed, many do precisely because they want to sell to the EU.
It lacked jeopardy to suggest we had to rely on Brussels to protect ourselves, while highlighting the very thing many people find intrusive about the EU.
Fear isn’t enough. Emerging during the 2014 referendum, the idea that an opponent’s remarks are just there to inspire fear has taken hold in British politics. In this campaign, both sides did scaremonger, but that obscures that both were also trying to articulate genuinely held believes in simple ways.
I am in no doubt that a vote to leave will damage the economy in the short to medium term. I may be wrong, but I don’t say it to spread fear. However, it has become impossible to prosecute this kind of argument without appearing hysterical.
With both sides casually dismissing each other or accusing each other of fear, we further lose the vital ingredient of democratic politics – reasonable debate. We push ourselves closer to a Trump candidacy and a divided society every time we think it is enough to simply label another side’s argument.
It is scary
The world post 1945 has developed haphazardly but always in the same direction. Like a coat of hair, everything points one way – towards greater cooperation. This is why Brexit is scary – it dares to move against seven decades of consensus.
So its not to say that Brexit is wrong, just that it is taking upon itself a pioneering role of re-imaging the post war settlement. Boris Johnson and Micheal Gove were never honest about the enormity of this, much as Yes downplayed the scale of what it was attempting.
Once the UK says its not playing, that triggers a moment when everyone must evaluate what they get from the game. It could mean the EU reforming just as Britons want, but with the UK excluded. It could mean a wave of protectionism. The EU could disintegrate.
There’s no such thing as sovereignty
Brexiteers should have listened more closely to the Scottish independence debate. At its heart was a test of the idea of sovereignty. What tripped up Yes was the realisation that creating sovereignty in the 21st century was expensive and risky, but more importantly, it wasn’t clear what the gain was.
Sovereignty wasn’t going to create some maverick state, because it couldn’t and nobody wanted that. ‘Yes’ wanted to be part of the wider community, ‘normal’ like other nations. What this meant was that it wouldn’t ultimately have that much free choice, because no nation does within the tangle of treaties that mark the global age.
Then SNP’s pitch of ‘litte change’ spoke to the weakness of its case – independence offers little change if you still want to trade with others. The goal Brexit is aiming for isn’t that significant, while being quite risky.
Everything is economics
Global politics is measured not in democratic participation, or ideological argument, but economic performance. Ultimately the rich world wants to stay rich enough to pay for a standard of living it likes. Current unrest is driven not by some revolt against this model, but the unfairness of it – too many people have been left economically powerless.
Thus people say they want to take power back, when in truth there is no sign non-voters are yearning for a more participatory democracy. Instead they want to feel that the rich elite are sharing the wealth – else why should the poor put up with crappy houses and the imagined threat from migrant workers taking what few jobs there are.
In this context Brexit is self-harm. The poor will be the ones who suffer from a dip in the value of the pound, from possible budget cuts and from a shrinkage of the economy. Further, they will suffer if the Brexiteers set about making Britain more competitive.
The case for leaving the EU, a bit like the case for Scottish independence, is only really favourable to small-state right wingers. In both instances, the economy would shrink, and the government would have to create a leaner state to recover.
This explain why lefties like me argue for economic honesty in the Scottish debate, fearing the poor are being gulled into a decision which could back fire on them. It also explain why I argue for remaining in the EU – the poor are better in a stable economic block. It is up to Yessers in Scotland, and Brexitters, to take seriously the challenge of what exactly this ‘freedom’ will look like.
Here come chaos
It seems quite possible that Cameron will go even if he wins the referendum and the UK votes to stay in the EU. His party are divided, many hating him for using ‘fear’ tactics. Right wing anti-EU Tories could well end up siding with UKIP.
Pro-EU Tories may find greater common cause with middle-of-the road Labour MPs. Certainly Jeremy Corbyn’s troubles aren’t over – a win for Brexit puts him on the wrong side of the people.
But its not rosy for Nicola Sturgeon either. There have been so many conflicting signals coming out of the SNP on how the EU referendum connects to Scotland’s constitutional debate that it is no longer clear what she thinks.
I have written before on the many reasons why a UK out of the EU makes independence much harder, and continue to think so. If Scotland votes to stay in the EU and the rest of the UK votes to leave, Sturgeon will NOT call another independence referendum. Once this becomes clear to her supporters, it might be the crack that splits the movement.
Will all this chaos be good – no? I like kicking the establishment, but turmoil would only speak to our more base instincts. Tolerance, reason and humanity are already frayed and I fear for what might come.
Constitutional politics may be First World wank
Arguing that changing your constitution will materially change your lot without providing an honest assessment of how this might come about is first-world indulgence of the highest order. It treats politics like Lego, suggesting all that’s needed is a different sequence of the same bricks and great things can occur. It borrows the ideas of real politics – fair distribution of resources and opportunity – while making those issues secondary to a bureaucratic process out of which the elite are likely to profit while the poor get screwed again.
Pity poor Cameron
Cameron looks like a man who will have won everything, but devalued it all. He permitted the Scottish referendum and won it. He held a euro referendum and may win.
In the process Scots feel more independent minded than ever, and the entire UK has been exposed as a place where nobody really likes the EU – our bond is a loveless one of pragmatism and fading ideals. Worse, a place divided against itself.
The man who gave the Tories back the winning trick has exposed a party no longer clear on its core values.
The EU vote has many lessons, but the most melancholy is how it has shown us to be a cynical bunch, sceptical of all levels of government, and unsure where we are going.
It may be that we look back at Cameron as key figure in British history – the man who set Britain’s direction in the 21st century, while enthusing no one of its merit.