My mother had an infuriating habit. She would come up with an idea and then ask around of people’s opinions until she found someone who agreed with her.
No matter how daft her plan was, and no matter how many people she asked until she found a supporter, she could only focus on the one supporter, not the legions of gentle opposition. So she did many foolish things. Coincidentally, she was also a founder member of UKIP, standing as the parliamentary candidate for St Ives in the 1997 election, as well as other, less important elections.
She died three years ago so is not part of the current Brexit debate. But as I look around at the current campaigns, I see her faults on a truly heroic scale. At a debate in my constituency a week or two back, a supporter of Brexit pointed out that 300 businessmen and women had said Britain would be better off outside the EU. I pointed out the thousands who, through trade organisations, letters to newspapers and surveys, had said they would prefer to remain. “What do they know?” came the heckle.
Michael Gove, one of the most intelligent people I have met, struggled to find one single world leader who supported Brexit, arguing that if the US were in our position, Obama would not be advocating a loss of control over his country. Oddly, Michael forgot to mention that Vladimir Putin had suggested Britain is better off alone. I wonder how that slipped his memory?
Indeed, the whole Vote Leave campaign has been told not once, but three times by the Office of National Statistics to stop using the claim of £350 million per week better off if we leave. Yet they still persist in arguing a lost cause on this figure. Gove stated again on Sky, that people don’t understand, that it is obvious that we pay the number over and that the rebate (abatement, as it is properly known) is at risk. He knows he is talking rubbish. The rebate is set in stone as a formula that can only be changed by unanimity of member states. Will the UK government say yes to a reduction? He also knows full well the rebate is not actually paid but is merely accounted for, the money being credited to our subsequent year accounts. He also knows we get a load more back by way of structure fund payments, direct grants and CAP payments. I guess it is unfair to knock his claim that we have more of a say on how it is spent if we leave, but in the interests of food security and as a promise to our farmers, should we leave and I am asked to vote to remove agricultural subsidies to pay for more NHS funding, I will go for food security (not that I wouldn’t like to spend more on the NHS if we could).
And on it goes. Clever ex City employees have suddenly, after being elected, had that part of their brain, that knew how to interpret economic forecasts, removed from active use. Suddenly they do not know how to interpret the Treasury forecast and can’t understand what a point forecast is. Most people can’t, to be fair, but honest politics is about informing the public how things work – not disinformation. Others completely ignore the plethora of forecasts from the LSE, Oxford Economics, the IMF, World Bank, OECD, private investment banks, the Treasury, citing just one forecaster, who has managed to construct a pro Brexit argument, as the only one who can possibly be right. Brexiteers struggle on saying the economists are all wrong anyway as they failed to predict the financial crises, completely ignoring one of the principles of economic forecasting that it is easier to predict long term trends than short term fluctuations.
What this all points to is a clear separation between the Brexiteers and the Remainers that is more than just being on opposing sides of the argument. The remain camp, which would carry a substantial parliamentary majority if it came to a vote, looks at the issues with a clear head, a cold approach, an analytical bent that balances probabilities. My friends in the exit camp are passionate, enthused by a once in a lifetime opportunity to break the imagined shackles of a European super state. But in so doing, they have left rational thought behind. Were this a simple example of a parliamentary vote under our system of representational democracy, this wouldn’t matter. But it is not: it is a plebiscite and we have a population who are given the opportunity to have their own say on an incredibly important issue. I support the idea of an EU referendum, but having been looking at the whole issue of the EU for some time now, I know it is a ferociously complex issue. It is probably not possible for an individual to get their head around the whole subject, most of us choosing to specialise in one area or another. So if we in Parliament struggle to understand the whole issue – and it is our job to spend time studying it – how will the average person on the street get anywhere near forming a clear headed view when there is so much disinformation about?
My mother would be loving this. She would be sitting with her friends, watching the debates with earnest enthusiasm. “What does Obama know?” she would cry. “Vladimir Putin has our and the EU’s interests at heart. That Donald Trump really does know what he is talking about.” I loved her dearly, but that didn’t make her right.
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