I’ve avoided making any comments on the upcoming UK referendum on EU membership up until now, but with the assassination of MP Jo Cox, I felt that I had to write something, and not leave it until after the vote. She was not perfect–because no human being is perfect–but was an example of what a politician should be. Connected with her constituents, concerned about issues of humanity, and prepared to stand up and actually do something as opposed to just talking about it. In short, a politician prepared to put issues before political expediency.
Like them or loathe them, it must be acknowledged that not all of them are self-serving, power-hungry individuals. Many, if not most, are motivated by a desire to serve–to make things better for other people. In pursuit of that goal, they expose themselves to verbal abuse, to the threat of physical violence and in some cases–tragically this one–to actual physical violence. Taking a slightly detached view, it goes with the territory, although there is a world of difference between having an egg thrown at you or being shot and stabbed. Has anything gone wrong with democracy? No, but perhaps something has gone wrong with society–or has it always been wrong, and it only needs some trigger-event to cause violence?
The great non-debate:
I believe that holding a referendum on EU membership was the correct thing to do. It might have been politically inconvenient–almost certainly so–to hold one, but as an exercise in democracy you can’t beat it. I can’t help wondering, though, if it was the politicians–mostly Conservative politicians– who were demanding a referendum, or the citizens of the UK. The mass of UK citizens go through their lives totally disinterested in politics, but then of course like to blame ‘The Government’ when things go wrong, or at least not according to their liking. ‘The Government’ is prone to blaming ‘Brussels’ when they have to take difficult, sometimes unpopular, decisions that impact on the UK population. In many cases, closer examination will show that our parliament tends to rubber stamp EU directives when they don’t have to. Let’s face it, the EU/Eurocrats/Brussels is a convenient whipping boy. The fact that EU directives have to be agreed by the Council of Ministers–elected officials from each individual state–and then be voted on in the EU Parliament before coming to individual parliaments to be ratified, escapes most people. Politicians, in or out of government, have not been in any hurry to explain this.
We, the British public, have been badly let-down by our politicians. Those individuals, who take every opportunity to bitterly complain that the public are disengaged from politics, and ‘oh dear, whatever can we do to change this?’ had the opportunity to prove to the rest of us that they actually had a purpose in life, apart from filling-out expense claim forms and accruing index-linked pensions that the rest of us can only dream about. In the course of my day job as a bus driver, I overhear many conversations. In the last couple of weeks many of these conversations have been about the referendum, and what I hear time and time again is people saying they are confused by the issues, and they wish somebody would tell them the facts and stop making all the ridiculous claims and shouting at each other. That and what Mrs Smith in number 42 got up to last night, and how their favourite football team could so easily do better if only the manager would make the changes they know he should. The UK has not suddenly turned into a one-subject nation, life goes on. Except for poor Jo Cox, and who is to blame for that? Certainly the individual who murdered her, and quite probably the particular political creed that he espoused, and those who peddled it. There are others who bear a major responsibility.
There has been no real debate on the pros and cons of remaining in the EU, which to be perfectly honest could be summarised as:
if we remain in we pretty much know what the situation is, but if we leave then we simply don’t know what will happen, and one person’s guess is as good as another’s.
What we have witnessed is a series of increasingly bad-tempered spats, with both sides making outrageous suggestions as to what would happen if we left or if we remained, and unable to back-up these claims with any real facts. That’s because there are no real facts, because it’s never happened before–Greenland doesn’t count, sorry. Faced with the unpalatable– that the economic case for leaving really amounted to do you feel lucky— the Leave Camp decided to tap into fears about immigration, with associated vaguely voiced notions about sovereignty and regaining control of various ‘things’–borders, courts, wages, jobs–you name it and leaving would give us back control. Except it wouldn’t of course. Anybody reading this actually think that any Government is going to abolish red-tape, cut the number of civil servants and free-up individuals to take their own decisions? That would mean cutting down on bureaucracy, meaning bureaucrats, meaning civil servants and meaning that individual government departments would have to relinquish control over certain parts of the national life that they are now ‘responsible’ for. Ain’t going to happen. If turkeys could vote they wouldn’t vote for Christmas.
So, the Leave Camp focussed on immigration. Passengers on the buses talk about immigration. About how entire new housing estates are being built on the edge of town to house all the immigrants who are flooding into our country and claiming ‘our’ benefits–except the EU has agreed immigrants to the UK are not entitled to ‘benefits’ until they’ve been here for six months. I wonder what my colleagues who come from various parts of Eastern Europe, or Asia, make of it all. Most of what people say about immigration is total nonsense, but yes, there are parts of the country where the demographics are changing. People mourn the passing of the old, familiar ways and worry about an unfamiliar future. To date, immigration has served this country pretty well–the sainted NHS would have collapsed before now if it wasn’t for immigrant doctors and nurses, the transport system in this country would have ground to a halt and who on earth would work in all the coffee shops? People make a point about immigrants driving down the cost of labour, but that is easily countered by enforcing a minimum~now called living~ wage. Aha, but good wages attract immigrants. Yes, but then if the indigenous population fills those jobs there would be no reason for immigrants to come to this country; and all those jobs are not being filled by the indigenous population. Blame the welfare system in part for that–or blame the EU if you want. Except the free movement of labour works both ways, and can you be absolutely certain that UK citizens will continue to enjoy visa-free travel to mainland Europe? Anybody remember the limits on the amount of UK currency you could take abroad, and the limit on the amount of cheaper goods that you could bring back into the UK when returning from holiday? I wouldn’t want to put money on that situation not re-occurring if we left the EU, but I don’t know for sure–and neither does anybody else–feeling lucky?
To be worried about immigration does not make a person a racist, but it does give some legitimacy to those who are racist. I’m not suggesting that Farage, Gove et al are racists, but by playing the ‘immigration card’ they are playing right into the hands of those who seek to tap into the darker side of human nature which, let’s be honest here, most of us posses but keep under control. Fear and suspicion of the ‘different person’ is inherent in all human beings, but most on some level understand that, and in their own ways take a more balanced view. Some do not. A lesson from history. In Germany, anti-Semitism was widespread in the nineteenth century, but most people stopped short of any violence and simply voiced an opinion, or kept their opinion to themselves. Come the twentieth century and the Nazis tapped into the this well of anti-Semitism, and made it respectable to voice an opinion. That made it easy for them to demonise the Jews, and having done so, made it respectable to support, or turn a blind eye to, taking action against them. The same was true for the Roma, for homosexuals, for those who had more liberal political opinions and the physically and mentally handicapped. In this country, immigrants are today being demonised– portrayed as being at the root of most of the country’s problems, by people who should know better. In truth, the shortage of school places, the shortage of housing and the failings of the NHS are the result of the lack of successive governments’ investment in the infrastructure. All this taps into the all-too human fear of the ‘different other’, and whilst some politicians may see a thinly disguised anti immigrant stance as being merely a way of getting their anti-EU message across, there are some who genuinely believe it. They are a small minority at the moment, but then so were the Nazis in the nineteen twenties. If you go padding in murky waters, you shouldn’t be surprised at the bottom-of-the-pond life you stir up.
If politicians want to know who was responsible for the murder of Jo Cox, they should start by looking in the mirror. Politicians are not respected because of their past (and present) failings. They had the opportunity to go some way to changing this during the referendum debate, but blew it. There has been no debate, there has been an unedifying shouting match and political posturing–and the public, whichever way the vote goes, will not forget it in a hurry.