Jeremy Brier is a barrister, writer and former Parliamentary Candidate.
AV nearly bored us to death, Scottish independence nearly tore us apart. And now the EU referendum appears to have debased us a nation.
Clouds of ugliness hang darkly over both campaigns. The Leavers have whipped-up alarmist hysteria at times, dog-whistling to the base without taking the time to sing the praises of those immigrants that work hard to make our country thrive and who nobly came in search of a better life. Of course it’s reasonable to want to control immigration; but the “Breaking Point” advert was several steps too far. How did that feel to the Polish firefighter or the Slovakian nurse? Did anyone stop and think of the human stories?
The Remain campaign has been no better, sneering at the concerns of working people as though they’re some feral band of bigots. Eddie Izzard and Bob Geldof were particularly egregious as they heckled audience members and fishermen alike – and Polly Toynbee was no better with her toe-curling plea to the people in “crap jobs” to listen to smart young Labour “graduates”. There is nothing more unedifying than the well-heeled dismissing as “racist” or “wrong” the concerns of people struggling to live: people at the sharp end of trying to see a doctor or put food on the table.
There now follows a public backlash against these febrile campaigns, catalysed by the tragic death of Jo Cox, by all accounts a wonderful local MP and, more importantly, the mother of two. The killing occurred in a climate of political fury and its effect has been to lead people to cry out for dignity and decency again. This brutality has pierced the Westminster bubble, perhaps a reminder of our shared and fragile humanity, the aching sadness that touches all views and creeds. Compassion hitherto at rest in public discourse has, tentatively, been re-awoken.
In the light of this sobering tragedy and reflecting on the campaigns to date, the public are asking: where was the nuance? Where is the respect? Where are the facts and principles away from the stormy rhetoric? The answer is that you won’t find all that in a referendum campaign. Too much needs to be digested too quickly by too many people.
The reverberating nastiness and nonsense that has fuelled supporters of both sides is not entirely their fault or the fault of their official campaigns. It is perhaps inherent in a modern-day referendum that each side must ferociously battle for attention in this way. Moods and emotions set the tone. The slightest slip or concession is seized on. With social media driving the agenda, that means being the most graphic, the most instantly alarmist. Politeness and analysis aren’t the fodder of multiple retweets.
This raises a more profound question: what sort of democracy do we want to be? On the evidence of recent years, we seem to be becoming a large focus group, where the public is asked to register a view in divisive single-issue plebiscites. But this is a hopeless way to govern.
Save for the rarest of instances (and I accept that the future of our relationship with Europe is one), the only vote which should matter is the one which seems to have fallen into insignificance in all this: the General Election. Only last year, we elected a majority of Conservative MPs on a clear manifesto. The effect of referenda is to divide the nation and disrupt policymaking. If only we hadn’t had it (imagine!) we could have had our politicians getting on with legislating, or opposing, or serving. The only thing now that can united this fractured nation is surely this: we don’t want to be bothered with another vote.
Beyond this, when the campaigns resume tomorrow, let them so do with civility, good humour and grace and, when the votes are counted, let it be respected by both sides as the will of the people. Once it is over, the important business of governing will begin again.
More importantly, the nation needs to rediscover its historical ability to debate with decency, to remember that the vast majority of people are good and kind like Jo Cox, but they may not all agree on principles or policies. Put it another way, had Jo Cox been an anti-immigration campaigner, a UKIP member, a warmonger, an eco-warrior, a Corbynista or a rebellious rightwinger, her death would be no less tragic – no less worthy of intense mourning. We are all different: therein lies our dignity.