While everybody’s eyes are riveted on the spectacular blue on blue fighting between the pro and anti-European wings of the Conservative party, something even more serious is going on. Politicians on both sides of the referendum argument are conducting themselves in a way that denigrates and demeans voters. This will have consequences.
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, for instance, warned the electorate, as he did yesterday, that in the event of a victory for the Leave campaign, he would have to slash public spending and increase taxes in an emergency Budget to tackle a £30bn “black hole”, he was attempting to bully the whole nation. And when he added that this could include raising income tax and inheritance taxes and cutting the NHS budget, in effect he was saying to the voters who wish to leave the EU – you stupid people, you really don’t get it… well, wait and see, I will punish you.
The trouble is that the political class spends its life in a Westminster/Whitehall bubble. When you operate in a bubble, you become unaware how your actions are perceived from outside, indeed you are not even sure what is going on outside. That is why directors of public companies, for instance, feel able to award themselves vast salaries, many times more than the amounts they pay their employees. They have no idea how selfish they appear. The best description of the bubble mentality I know was put into the mouth of one of the characters in Lucy Prebble’s smash hit play of 2009, Enron, describing the financial markets: "There’s a strange thing goes on inside a bubble. It’s hard to describe. People who are in it can’t see outside of it, don’t believe there is an outside."
In fact Osborne well illustrates this blindness. He had already tried to scare older people by saying that their state pensions would be at risk in the event of Britain leaving the EU. And he was upbraided for this in a recent BBC programme, when the presenter, Andrew Neil, told the Chancellor he should be "ashamed" of a pro-EU advert showing an elderly woman holding an empty purse when he well knew that a triple lock on state pensions is enshrined in law; "You’ve been scaring pensioners."
Of course the Chancellor is not the only politician who has been treating voters as fools. The whole referendum campaign has been a festival of spinning and fear mongering. Notoriously the Leave campaign, for instance, states that Britain pays £350m a week into the EU budget but omits to say that we have a rebate that reduces our net contribution to £250 million a week. And while it is theoretically possible for Turkey to join the European Union in the next few years, as has been alleged, in practice the likelihood is minimal, seeing that each member state, including Britain, has a right of veto
There is nothing to choose between the two sides. Boris Johnson is charged with leading the ‘out’ campaign solely as a way of reaching 10 Downing Street. That may be so. But David Cameron is no better. In 2013 he promised the referendum because he calculated that it would neutralise the threat from Nigel Farage’s UKIP in the 2015 election and thus save his premiership.
The likely consequence of the way the referendum campaign has been conducted is that voters’ trust in the country’s political process will decline further. It is already low. One recent survey has shown that among people with no link to a political party, only 17 per cent claim the system of governing works ‘mainly well’ (Democratic Audit). Another reports that ‘only 17 per cent of respondents trust governments most of the time… far less than the 38 per cent who did in 1986’ (British Social Attitudes).
This is becoming serious and, following the referendum campaign, is likely to become more so. For what this is really about is legitimacy. We mostly obey the law and pay our taxes because we believe that the measures have been subject to effective democratic scrutiny. But when we are forced to doubt the political process, we undermine legitimacy. And legitimacy is the single most important quality that a political system can possess.
So the really important question is this. When the referendum campaign is over, how can legitimacy be rebuilt? Here is an idea that may be a small improvement.It starts from the fact that the most impressive part of the political system at present is the work of the select committees. In recent days, for instance, the founder of Sports Direct, Mike Ashley, faced three hours of questioning from MPs about his employment practices and yesterday Sir Philip Green was interrogated all morning about his handling of the sale of British Home Stores and its subsequent closure involving massive job losses.
Bearing this in mind, let us take the most difficult subject of all, the rules for immigration from non-EU countries. How about letting Parliament make the running. Suppose, say, the rules were set annually. First the relevant select committee would conduct a thorough examination of current experience, perhaps holding sessions in regional centres as well as in the Palace of Westminster. From this would emerge a proposal to put before Parliament. And, second step, let it be subject to a free vote by MPs, not one dictated by party allegiance.
Now no doubt there are lots of difficulties with this sketch of a new procedure for setting immigration rules. But it would at least give the public a say (at the select committee stage) and it would escape the straightjacket of party discipline by means of a free vote. Wouldn’t this be better than government ministers making the decision on their own and then forcing it through?
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