Friday, 29 December 2017

Why I Spoiled my Ballot in the EU Referendum

Afternoon - hope you're all doing well and thanks in particular to all of our new readers (of whom there are many, the statistics demonstrate this).

I first became convinced that Britain would be better off out of the European Union in the late 1990s (I was still a teenager at the time if you're being nosy). At the time it was strange because the EU was being presented by the mainstream media as this shiny, modern exciting and progressive organisation while those who opposed further integration into it were depicted as xenophobic Little Englanders who were still suffering from some post-imperial form of PTSD. For the benefit of our younger readers, the debate back then was about whether or not we should adopt the Euro as our currency. Wanting what has become known as Brexit was regarded as full-on extremism.

This blatant bias in favour not just of continued EU membership but further integration, the enlargement of the EU and British entry into what's now the Eurozone probably stiffened my resolve. Like many young people, I deeply resented being told what to think and whenever I came into contact with EU-enthusiasts I found that they insultingly conflated scepticism about the EU as a political organisation with a general hatred of foreigners. The term 'Eurosceptic' (which came into currency around that time) was a sneaky and pernicious extension of that conflation. Knock it off. I'm EU-sceptic, let's have a discussion about that and don't accuse me of xenophobia again.

Of course a few of those who were sceptical about the EU did have 'issues' in this regard but I'll return to that later on.

In reality they never wanted that discussion, not really. The thing that I always noticed was how dated the EU looked and came over, even back then. It may have been perceived as futuristic and exciting by some in the 1970s but by the turn of the millenium it was obvious to me that it was the EU's little fanclub within the media and the political parties who were guilty of time travel (in the case of political parties both had financial reasons to support continued membership, as well as their MEPs' job security being reliant on it). It was a relic cemented in the mindset and mentality of the 1970s, as if the political and economic changes of the 1980s had never happened.

It also occurred to me that although the Conservative Party sometimes presented itself as an organ that was sceptical about the EU, its stated position was disingenuous both in absolute terms and the long-term plausibility of that position. The Tories had taken us into the EEC, that great 'sceptic' Margaret Thatcher happily signed the Single European Act. The Major years saw Maastricht and a cabinet that included the likes of Heseltine and Clarke, who would gladly have taken us deeper into the EU and adopted the Euro in a single morning had the opportunity presented itself. The Tories were and remain pyrite sceptics taking good people for a ride.

Hypothetically, there were other political options out there but most of them (BNP, National Front etc) were pretty revolting and not even worth having a conversation about. The one exception was UKIP, who I did once have a look at joining - note that this was before Farage really went to town on them, kicked anyone with a brain out and turned the personal cult that remained into the political wing of Breitbart magazine. The Alan Sked/Michael Holmes incarnation of UKIP was rather different (and altogether more moderate) than the 'Frankenstein's Monster' that Sked later completely distanced himself from. Perhaps it's for the best I didn't bother.

Over the years the climate and landscape shifted somewhat. Talk of joining the Euro subsided when it turned out to the the 'New Coke' of currency launches and membership plunged several countries into economic crises they then lacked the levers to get out of. The pendulum swung in the opposite direction, particularly after UKIP (initially inspired by Robert Kilroy-Silk and not Farage, how often is that forgotten?) started getting decent results, albeit almost exclusively in European elections. All of a sudden the question of 'in or out' was on the table as almost nobody argued openly for further integration or Eurozone membership.

So you would presume that I was delighted when the offer of a referendum was made ahead of the 2015 election, equally so when we got the promised plebiscite and euphoric when 'we' won? Well, somewhat appropriately given what we're talking about, the answers are no, no and no again. First up, the referendum 'pledge' was made by an arrogant Prime Minister who calculated that he would need the support of the Liberal Democrats (who would helpfully 'block' him) to stay in office. The reason for it was actually Dave's hysterical over-reaction to the maverick Douglas Carswell and a complete tosser called Mark Reckless defecting to UKIP.

Dave cacked his pants and decided this was the way to stop further defections, completely blowing the departure of Carswell (self-styled 'mavericks' tend to pull strokes like this) and Reckless (good riddance, surely?) out of proportion. Though Farage called his bluff by claiming he was in constant discussion with whatever number of Tory MPs he felt like making up that day, the prospect of 15-20 of them jumping ship somewhere near simultaneously was never seriously going to happen. Nor do I necessarily think Nige ever wanted it to - any MP with a bit of clout might be inclined towards leadership ambitions of their own.

Then there's the referendum itself.

I'm going to open up with something that nobody ever seems to talk about. One Sunday morning I was watching the Andrew Marr show when he told us that the Electoral Commission would be "deciding that week who the official Leave and Remain campaigns would be, and that they would get broadcast time along with State funding". Now read that bit in italics back to yourselves again and, here are the questions nobody asks:- who decided that there would be a single 'official' Leave campaign and a similar one on the Remain side? Who decided to give them taxpayers' money and why? And why was everyone else deliberately excluded from the conversation?

And...why was basically nobody asking these questions at the time?

Look, even if you can demonstrate to me that my 'side' actually benefited from all of this then I don't care. I don't cheat to win at Scrabble or Monopoly and I don't cheat to win at politics either. In what is supposed to be a free country you and me might disagree on a particular issue. We should be free to campaign on opposing sides, get like-minded people to help us and argue our cases with energy and drive while keeping it clean and respecting each other. The media should then be free to report on this if they want, rather than being told which campaigners they can and can't report on, and 'corporate welfare' given to those campaigns to eliminate 'the competition'.

This 'management' of the process was a State attack on pluralism which transcends the result and I wish more people were pissed off about. Straight away I was apathetic and didn't really care, nor could I give two shits about which 'side' Boris Johnson was on. After months of 'suspense' which was killing precisely nobody, the Oscar envelope is opened and Boris 'comes out' as a Leaver. He had apparently 'agonised' over this and written alternative pieces for the Telegraph which argued for either side (er...what?). Then this fly-by-night convert by a margin of 51-49 in his own mind gets to be the de facto 'leader' of the Leave campaign. How the hell does that work?

During the campaign I got sick of hearing about celebrities who had come out for either side, along with the prominent people who had 'swapped sides' at some point in the process. You're going to have to explain that one to me as well - as a sceptic towards the EU, I always had two realistic choices on this thing, namely voting Leave and abstension. If you're inclined towards leaving but dislike their campaign then stop working for them, spoil your ballot paper or stay at home and that's the end of it. Just because you disagree with how 'your side' was campaigning (and we'll go there) isn't a reason to fundamentally change your mind about the subject being discussed, surely?

It all felt fake or contrived in some way I couldn't put my finger on.

Another low point was the bizarre debate a couple of nights before the vote where the likes of Ruth Davidson, Boris and Gisela "I'm a mother and grandfather" Stuart battled it out. The crowd whooped and cheered while the 'contestants' waved to that crowd like they were on Wheel of Fortune rather than discussing a very serious constitutional issue (why have we got a compulsion to turn these things into entertainment?). The biggest highlight was Stuart accidentally 'confessing' to being a hermaphrodite on national television, the next biggest was 'quitting' this infantile crap to switch to the Spain vs Croatia match on the other side. It was just surreal.

If 'Project Fear' surprised you then I've no sympathy whatsoever. The Remain crowd were always going to resort to this stuff - especially as they had the bum end of the argument, although they did manage to excel themselves on a few occasions. I laughed when Gideon threatened us all with an austerity budget (he seemed to suggest this as a punishment rather than out of necessity) if we dared to vote Leave and it was a genuine 'face hurts' moment when it was suggested that if Britain left the EU, the rest of Europe would all start fighting each other and World War 3 would break out - tonight we're gonna party like it's 1939, or something like that.

A few intelligent people have got this when I've explained it to them - stop obsessing with the other side, you can't hurt them as you were never going to vote, campaign for or support them in any way - ergo, there is nothing for you to withdraw. Focus on whether or not your own side is fit for purpose. In this regard, Leave was a disaster which genuinely deserved to lose and in reality very nearly did lose something they should always have walked. In the end, Leave got over the line for all the wrong reasons and had already lost millions of ordinary people well before the final bell. They were just fortunate that 'the other side' contrived to be even worse.

Overnight we went from "people call you racist if you talk about immigration" to a campaign that saturation bombed people with constant anti-immigration white noise, blatantly appealed to the pub racist/soccer hooligan crowd and would spend several days at a time going on about precisely nothing else. Then there were the election-style giveaways like the pledge of additional cash for the NHS, which was both irresponsible and rank dishonest. This wasn't an election and whatever savings might have been made by leaving, it was not the Leave campaign's money to throw around like confetti. Whether people believed the £350 million number or not is beside the point. It stank.

The last straw was when it came out that Leave had accepted a significant amount of money (somewhere around £900,000) from a prominent former BNP benefactor. Having spent the previous two months essentially 'being the BNP' this does make a sort of logical sense on the surface but I wasn't prepared to hold my nose anymore. Knowing that they would have to count it and could never lazily label me 'apathetic' for having done so I resolved to write 'NONE OF THE ABOVE' at the bottom of my ballot paper come the day of reckoning. If you want to essentially abstain but avoid the 'apathy' label then this is just about the only way of doing so.

I never wanted a referendum in the first place as it was obvious this would inevitably leave the process of leaving in the hands of people bitterly opposed to what they'd been compelled to do. Although it was more like hard work, surely a smarter option would have been to allow the Conservative Party to die of neglect and replace it with something fit for purpose? That's one for another time, but we had our chance and blew it. What I didn't anticipate was the squalid and foul climate that would emerge from the whole thing, with respectful disagreement, reason, recognition of an objective truth and common decency collapsing on both sides of the proverbial road.

We really shouldn't have bothered.

Look, I've regarded the EU as a crappy, declining outfit for years and wanted us out but it's not an 'evil' organisation led by devils and there were benefits to being a member, it's just that on balance they were clearly outweighed by the disadvantages in my view. If you look at the same evidence and reach a different balance that's entirely your call and maybe Boris Johnson genuinely did 'agonise' over this, but then someone closer to 51-49 than, say, 80-20 had no business being involved in the campaign did they? For a while I thought 'the sting' was going to be Boris 'changing sides' fairly close to the vote and taking a truckload of this strange 'cult of personality' he has with him.

Referenda by definition don't allow for balance, but present two competing, false and rather silly threads of good vs evil in which 'your side' is right about everything and 'their lot' have to be wrong on all questions at all times. Imagine trying to live your life like that - in fact, a lot of people seem to be living at least one aspect of their lives entirely like that if you open your eyes and ears. It's one of the most poisonous aspects of Brexit, the emergence of little one-man or one-woman Leave and Remain campaigns everywhere - flinging mud, telling lies, playing the victim, 'crybullying', depicting those who disagree with them as devils, psychopaths, traitors or baby-eaters.

It's absolutely pathetic and I sincerely hope we never have another referendum in the Uk.

I'll be back on New Year's Eve and returning to one a week from January, it's just the additional free time over the festive period has given me opportunity to get a bit done.

Thanks again for reading and spread the word if you feel the inclination. Take care.

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