Over a year ago, I made a very optimistic prediction. During the 2015 election campaign, when the Conservatives proposed holding a referendum on our EU membership, the then Labour leadership and others united to say that it would be a bad idea. They said it would be divisive, that it would harm the very democracy it was intended to strengthen, and that virtually nothing good could come out of the exercise.
I said they were wrong; I said referendums were good in that they provided powerful mandates for government action; and I said that, as in the Scottish referendum campaign, the issue would at least be settled, regardless of the result. I was wrong in all three of those suggestions. I was badly, terribly wrong. And now, as the bitter result of a poisonous and unpleasant campaign is laid before us, I am also certain that many of those who also advocated in favour of the referendum are now having second thoughts.
In a phrase which is used all too much – yet also not enough – Clement Attlee said that referendums were ‘the device of demagogues and dictators’. Margaret Thatcher quoted him with approval on that subject. And it is fundamentally correct. In Third World countries referendums can prove to be, when sufficiently influenced by those in power, a rubber stamp on continued bad governance. The binary choice leads itself to simplifications, all of which remove the true complexity of liberty and self-government. Elections where only one candidate or result is permitted have in many ways a similar effect. There’s something horribly restrictive about it – something reductionist. And this reductionism assists only the partisan; it helps spread tribalism and extreme ideology, but it does not help the people of this country.
What we are in effect breeding here is yet another simmering national hatred, yet another tension to disfigure public life. Rather than providing a valve to lessen the pressure, this referendum has increased that pressure. No longer is the European Union a fact of life; now the debate has been pushed to the extremes: it is either an evil institution smothering Britain and threatening to pack our country full of Turks, or the sole reason Britain is doing better than Venezuela at the present time. Debate has been pushed to the extremes. There are no other options.
Returning to normal may prove essentially impossible. In Scotland, for example, the new normal is one of constant suspicion, continued political conflict; and all of this is undergirded with the perpetual threat of another referendum, another descent into all the paranoia and nastiness once again. (Of course, the European Union referendum has also re-opened the prospect of Scottish independence like an old wound; and things of that nature take a long time to heal. We will all still be at each other’s throats about this present referendum and its results in 40 years, much in the same way that the original plebiscite in 1975 remains a sore point for many obsessives.)
We can debate questions of national policy for ever – and that debate, bitter and fractious as it is, will not cease when the votes are tallied and the results announced. The determined Eurosceptics, whose whole lives (not to mention their political careers) have been built on their hatred of the institution, will not stop their criticism of the European Union or those who support its continued existence if they lose; in fact, they may well double their efforts. And if the result they claim to want comes about, they will have to deliver on some frankly impossible promises; so too, it must be remembered, will those who want Britain to remain.
Whichever side loses, as in the Scottish referendum, will not forget it. Unlike the Alternative Vote, for example, people actually care about this stuff. It matters; and whichever result is reached will determine the course of the nation for years, even decades. Governments could fall, after all. If you had spent the last few months saying that leaving the Union would be an unparalleled catastrophe, would you be inclined to take that eventuality lying down? What about if you said staying in would be sacrificing our political independence on a pan-European altar, and that millions of foreigners would turn up on Tuesday or sooner?
Even if you didn’t believe this stuff, it would be difficult to stop saying it; such is the reckless arrogance of consistency. And if one did believe it – if one were completely convinced and utterly beholden to that view – there would be no reason not to call the victors traitors or racists; they would, after all, have loosed something awful on the world – and condemned Britain to a terrible future in the process.
There are no good options now; even after the terrible murder of Jo Cox, when the campaigns were suspended and the politicking very briefly ceased, there can be no return to placidity, no recapturing the calm. In many ways the seeds for future conflict have already been sown, be it in the bitter TV debates or the ways the campaigns have each behaved in ways which will allow the other to call them underhand – and to say that, if they win, the result will be a ‘stolen’ one. Traitors abound; deviousness is the order of the day.
In a way this is my fault, and the fault of those like me who thought this referendum would be a good idea. I said so at the time, and I was wrong on that score; I was very wrong indeed. This vote is the most important one in the history of a generation, but it need not have been. It need not have happened at all. People like me – who thought, perhaps, that democracy would be the chief beneficiary of a referendum and that it would put nationalism and hatred to bed rather than supplement them – are to blame. We thought it would be a good idea; we said as much; and now we can only complain bitterly as the country bears witness to a cruel and even potentially dangerous harvest.