No proper referendum debate? Come off it, Brexit is the biggest debate in British politics for decades

When senior government ministers joust in public about migration or sovereignty – we are watching the dissection of big questions that deserved open discussion long ago

Mary Dejevesky
Thursday 09 June 2016 17:08
Cameron answers questions during a Sky News Brexit debate
Cameron answers questions during a Sky News Brexit debate

Just two weeks to go now, and still the voters implore: “Only give us the facts. All we want is the facts.” Seconds later, and the same voters demand: “Will you kindly stop all the bickering. Shut up. Stop lying. Stop yelling. Behave nicely. A plague on the lot of you!”

The impression has been created, and persists to this day, that the EU referendum campaign amounts to a shouting match that most voters are not listening to – or if they are listening, will be turned off by the questionable statistics and intemperate tone.

Collectively, the pollsters maintain that, give or take a few fluctuations, opinion has hardly budged for weeks. How engaged is the Great British public? Not very, they say. A turn-out of 60 per cent would be at the upper edge. But I’m not so sure.

Major and Blair on Brexit

Of course, London is not the UK, and it is self-evident that the Great British public is not as wrapped up in this referendum campaign as the Scots were two summers ago in theirs. There is a great deal of cynicism about politics and politicians out there, for which Iraq, the financial crisis, cheating MPs and Tony Blair all bear some blame.

But if there was a vast pall of apathy stultifying the land, it seems to me at least, to have evaporated. And the mood change could be felt well before the voter registration website crashed earlier this week.

Why have voters been complaining so furiously about the tone of the debate, if they have not been listening to any of it? Why do voters say advocates (on both sides) have been lying, if they haven’t choked on at least the occasional “fact” along the way? Why have civic organisations, on both sides, been holding public meetings if they expect no one to turn up? Church halls and community centres almost everywhere have been packed. In London, additional debates have been scheduled to meet unforeseen demand.

Radio phone-ins have no difficulty attracting callers with strong opinions. Yes, some of their opinions are about the absence of “facts” and about the “shouting” and the “lies”. But many are about the UK and Europe and “the issues” – such as jobs, migration and the economy, too.

TV discussions and interviews – I refuse to call serial interviews a “debate” – have been distinguished by the sharpness of the questions, the no-holds-barred attitude on all sides, and the willingness of senior politicians, including the Prime Minister, to engage. Did you see him take the flak on “waffle” from a student? Or the way Nigel Farage was tackled on migration? Of course, direct TV debates with their risk and drama would be preferable. But the airing of controversy, and the attendant passions, have been refreshing.

And what of the daily objections to questioners diverting the “in-out” EU campaign to indulge their own preoccupations migration being the most conspicuous? But, a case can be made that migration belongs in there, because the EU referendum campaign is rightly, but perhaps unexpectedly prompting a debate about the very nature of the UK and its future. Migration not just EU migration has to be a part of that, and such a wide-ranging public debate on the subject has not really been had for almost half a century.

The breadth of the questions raised also reflects a profound public frustration. The political ferment now in evidence really belonged in the weeks before last year’s general election. That campaign, however, was so tightly managed, so carefully confined to a relatively few marginal constituencies and controllable TV events, that for many voters there was no meaningful national campaign at all. The referendum offers payback time.

But there is also the national angle. Because the EU referendum is truly national not counted or campaigned for by constituency and because views on Europe cross party lines, there is the possibility of a nationwide conversation, and a sense of national politics at work. When senior government ministers joust in public about the prospects for the City of London or manufacturing jobs, about desired levels and types of migration, or about the practical import of sovereignty in the 21st century we are watching the dissection of big questions that deserved open discussion long ago. Why were they kept largely out of sight? Because of party discipline and the consensus that prevailed at the top of the two main parties.

In a celebrated passage of his party conference speech only weeks after 9/11, Tony Blair spoke of a “moment to seize”, of the kaleidoscope shaken and its pieces “in flux”. Soon, he said, they will settle again, but “before they do, let us reorder this world around us”. By the time he left office, his ambitions on that score had reaped a humbling and very expensive harvest.

In national politics, however, almost a generation on, David Cameron’s ill-advised “in-out” EU referendum may suddenly have opened up just such a moment of reordering and reappraisal. It could bring a new relationship between the UK and Europe and the world. It could end up with a new alignment of British politics. Or not.

But it is wrong to complain that the politicians are not offering facts: there are no facts, only past record and future forecasts, and they are being thrown at us by the bucketful at almost every hour of every day. It is wrong, too, to complain about the aggressive tone. That is part and parcel of argument today. You don’t have to shout at the TV any more, you can rail on social media, even as you might prefer the (sometimes) gentler mores of your village hall. Whether you choose to take part or stand by, the experience is worth savouring. This is more democracy than I can remember in Britain for decades.

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