EU Referendum: a debased debate

Jun 14


3 Responses


Helen Whitten

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EU Referendum: a debased debate

We went to the Hay Literary Festival recently.  Inevitably, there were many talks that touched on the EU.   In a mock referendum held at the close of the Festival, three-quarters of those there voted to stay in and I have, after sitting on the fence for some time, decided to join them in this.

I did not want to make a decision without careful thought and research.  It is a complex subject and the decision is certainly not one to be taken lightly.  There are many factors that have the potential to seriously impact each of us living here and in Europe for many years to come.  But for any of us trying to make up our minds, the level of political debate has, in my view, been shameful – full of slings and arrows and ineffective ways of putting any points of fact to the voter.  It has insulted the public intelligence.  The name-calling has reminded me of children in a playground – and sadly this seems to be just the same in the electoral discussions on the other side of the Atlantic.

How do we raise the level of debate?  It is arrogant and disrespectful to presume that anyone with a different perspective is an “idiot”.  There are perfectly legitimate arguments on both sides.  There are voices of reason from business, economists and government putting each case and not one of them has a crystal ball to the future.   Yet representatives of the campaigns seem to imagine that they can terrify us into submission by citing one terrible consequence after another of not doing what they want.  It doesn’t make for an intelligent discussion of the facts and potential consequences.

But politicians of all parties are, I feel, paying the price for persistently ignoring the concerns of some of those voting to leave, calling them racist, little Englanders or bigots rather than waiting to hear what they are actually saying.    Politicians don’t seem to want to hear opposing perspectives.  They just hurl abuse rather than listen.  This is hardly a good example of statesmanship. The media have been equally scaremongering, leaving out some of the subtle aspects of the challenges we face.

It was this piece in the Evening Standard that helped me decide.  It was a quote from entrepreneur Rohan Silva “The institutions of the EU are amongst other things, unaccountable, untransparent, undemocratic, wasteful, sometimes corrupt, top down, not fit for purpose for the world we live in today, that’s all true.  But as someone who runs a small business and works to support hundreds of other small businesses, small companies are least well placed to withstand the turmoil, the uncertainty and the flight of capital that’s going to happen from leaving for at least three years after leaving the EU … The jobs lost, the sleepless nights, the anxiety, the economic damage will be truly considerable and the price of that is not worth paying at this time because the EU for all its flaws is not as bad as leaving.”

This summed up pretty accurately how I felt.  Having run a small business for 23 years, I have enjoyed making my own decisions and feeling free and flexible to build alliances – but not be limited by them.  So my natural tendency is to be small and flexible.  I find it frustrating that reform within the EU is so cumbersome.  Practices and contracts should always be reviewed frequently, especially in such a fast-changing world and with a group of countries that has expanded from a small number of six to twenty-eight very diverse nations.  If we look at this from a Darwinian perspective, we know that if a living body does not adapt to changing circumstances it will become extinct.

I love Europe and the Europeans, was born and spent my early childhood in Portugal, have lived in France and travelled to many countries on business.  I believe that the collaboration of different nationalities has resulted in advantages in innovation in science, medicine, the economy, the environment and in a deeper understanding of humanity.  Immigration has brought huge benefits to our country and I admire the energy and enterprise as well as the cultural input that the majority of those arriving here have created.  And yet the speed and rate that our country is growing is a perfectly rational concern, as anyone who travels on the London tube will know.  No-one should be insulted for having raised the issue.  Our infrastructure is creaking and we don’t have money in the coffers to improve housing, education or roads at the drop of a hat.

The Remain contingent have been extremely tardy in putting their case and certainly the Labour Party seem only just to be waking up to the need to speak out on the matter at all.  Speaking personally, we have received information and stickers from Vote Leave but absolutely nothing from Remain either in Hampshire or in London. Therefore the only banners and stickers one sees as one drives around the countryside are Vote Leave.

And what a boring statement the word Remain represents.  Static, not forward motivating.  Stronger in Europe was a far more inspirational phrase.  And in the meantime the Conservatives are tearing themselves apart in a really appalling way and the prospect of Johnson, Gove and IDS leading a government is wholly unattractive.  All in all, I wish to God Cameron had never started this whole referendum lark.

But whilst I am not as convinced as some of the long-term benefits of staying in, I do see that in the short-term it is better to remain within the EU. It is a huge distraction for government and business alike to have to renegotiate contracts and terms at a time when the domestic and global economy is anyway under pressure.   And if the EU does implode or explode over the next few years we shall be at the table to influence the outcome.

All families and groups have squabbles.  In assertive communication each party is able to express their own views and at the same time be open and respectful in listening to the views of others in order to seek a solution, where possible, that honours all those involved. Taking into account diverse opinions can take longer but the outcomes are generally more creative than when a decision is made hastily.

Hopefully our politicians can now transform their approach, make amends for the truly unnecessary rudeness and insults that have been bandied about during this debate, and repair relationships with colleagues both in the UK and the EU.  Hopefully all concerned can be grown-up enough to consult in an assertive way on how to continue to build peace and prosperity in the world, including the world beyond the EU.  Hopefully our global allies will have the willingness to work together for the future, as collaboration and cooperation are surely the way forward.


3 Responses

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful piece, Helen. Personally I’ve been very saddened by the cheapness of the debate. Really it’s been more of a Tory leadership battle over a single issue than a debate about the future of our, and in particular my daughters’, country.

    I think the real problem here, as you say, is the relentless negativity of it all. It’s not just that the debate is rejection vs no change, which is pretty odd to start with, it’s that both sides have basically been campaigning on the downsides of voting for the other side, rather than the benefits of voting for them.

    And the fact is that the BrexTwits have more fear to bank on. So just as I knew that vaccinating my children for MMR would not harm them but I still hesitated, and much that I know that walking under a ladder cannot possibly have any material effect on the future of the universe but I still feel uncomfortable doing it, so that drip, drip negativity hangs on in there. So when the Sun’s front page today describes an EU that only ever existed in a beer commercial, somehow we all remember that and not the reality.

    This whole thing would have been a fascinating study of the psychology of loss aversion had it not been so goddam important. Instead it seems to rank with the lost opportunities of the PR referendum and the Scottish independence one as illustrations of the cavernous gap between politics and government. The fact is that all three have descended into what I can’t think of a better term to describe as political willy-waving is a tragedy that future generations will rightly think less of us for when they judge out term as custodians of their country.

  2. Helen,thanks for your as ever elegantly and evenly expressed views.
    There is all ready a law on the statute book that ensures a referendum in the event of a further attempt by Brussels to corral us into further integration so this referendum is unnecessary.
    If the consequences of Brexit are so apocalyptic for the national good as Cameron and Osborne claim the question to be answered is why on earth they engineered this referendum with the distinct possibility that it might lead to our withdrawal from the EU.
    The choice of fellow travellers in this contest is unappealing and very mixed on each side although I prefer M Gove and Frank Field to the Old Etonians.
    However for several reasons I have a Remain poster in the window.


  3. I suppose that I write from a different perspective since, before taking retirement, I was employed at CERN, Geneva for 32 years. My job as a purchasing manager and adviser lasting 32 years took me all over the member-states of the E.U. so I feel I am infused with a spirit of cultural solidarity with Europe.
    I do try to put myself in the place of those who aggrieved by the policies, like some poorer workers who are confronted by European immigrants who are prepared to work for lower wages, as well as fishermen who quite reasonably wish to see the fishing limits redrawn.
    However, I am appalled by people like Boris and Michael Grove who assert time and time again that Brussels will not dare to impose tariffs on Brtish goods exported to the E.U. Do they not realise that Norway and Switzerland after negotiating their entry into the E.U. are saddled with huge block annual payments. They will react vehemently if the United Kingdom incurs no penalties for leaving the union? The E.U. will also make every effort to dissuade any initiative by its existing members to try to emulate the British Brexit, by demanding that the UK pays tariffs on its exports, or contributes block payments like Norway and Switzerland.
    There are several issues to weigh up before making a final decision in the refeendum such as the economy, migration, culture, technical and resarch cooperation, defence together with security, but I do believe that the greatest preponderation by far should be placed on the economy. The Brexit argument in this domain is intangible and weak.
    The whole issue is surely too complex to be submitted to a referendum. I have always believed that one elects a government to govern, aided as it is by experts and parliamentiary committees. Therefore, I would love to vote “Remain”, but my status is only that of a disenfranchised second class British expatriate citizen because I have lived outside my sceptre isle for more than 15 years.

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