Who are we?
This is the question that ought to be the basis of the referendum in which we hope you will cast your vote. Elections tend not to be won by the side that has the better answer to a particular question, but rather the side that set the question and so framed the argument.
The Remain camp is undoubtedly, and effectively, using fear of economic consequences to argue their case. Do you want to be poorer? That is the basic question they pose. Its subliminal message is: “don’t take the risk”. The Leave side, in arguing against the status quo, are asking voters to take a leap in the dark, based on a vision of Britain as it was years ago. Who governs Britain? That is the question they pose. Its message, repeated ad infinitum in recent weeks, is: “take control”.
At a deeper level, the issue at stake in today’s referendum is what sort of country Britain is and wishes to be. Over the course of this bruising campaign, in which lifelong friendships and alliances have been formed and expunged, it is true rather than just clichéd to say that the best and worst of Britain has been on display. The worst included the appalling murder of Jo Cox MP – an attempt to silence democracy by, it seems, a fanatical nationalist. This occurred in a climate of hysteria, nasty propaganda and incrimination exemplified by Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster: a deceitful and, to put it mildly, distasteful attempt to whip up fear and hatred.
And yet we have seen the best of Britain, too. On Tuesday night, in front of a crowd of 6,000 or so, the BBC Question Time special was a festival of democracy watched, at peak, by more than four million people. Passionate but sufficiently polite, it was expertly produced and, indeed, presented, by a superb team comprising David Dimbleby, Mishal Husain, and Emily Maitlis. If only Question Time had such a vast audience every week. For all the heat and venom of this campaign, there have also been edifying moments, such as the clarity of argument espoused by leading members of both camps, the spectacle of politicians prostrating themselves on television every night, and the dignified response to the death of Jo Cox.
The truest measure of Britain’s health as a democracy is not, however, to be found in the theatre of recent weeks, but in the scale of voter turnout. In a tight referendum on a matter of such vast import, there should be huge motivation to turn up and put a mark on a ballot paper. It is very unlikely that the campaign changed many minds; for the most part, it is likely to have confirmed what voters thought already. And the early signs are that turnout will be fittingly high for a decision so big, of which we have heard so much. That would be good for democracy, and good for Britain.
For more than three decade, this column has stood up for British democracy. A very great part of that mission has been about highlighting threats to it. Today, those threats are multiplying, from a ludicrous voting system to the corrupt House of Lords, from gerrymandering by the Tory Government to the capture of our political class by the lobbyists of the rich. Another salient threat is low voter turnout, which drains governments of their legitimacy.
That, and a solemn duty not to betray those who gave their lives so that we may vote, is why – whatever your persuasion – The Independent hopes that you deploy the immense privilege given to you. A vote for either side is a vote for democracy, and a vote for Britain.
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