‘We can’t decide how to vote, me and my friends,’ said a woman in Durham last Tuesday. ‘We’re going to toss a coin.’
The most important decision about Britain’s future in decades, to be decided by the toss of a coin! It’s grotesque.
But I believe that’s how many of the votes in this Referendum were cast, for reasons entirely unconnected with the EU, sometimes for no reason at all.
I respect the views of those who—like some members of my extended family—have for many years held carefully thought out reasons for wanting to leave the EU. I disagree with them fundamentally, but I know they voted according to their beliefs, having considered the question thoroughly over a long time and made the choice they thought best. If all those who voted Leave had taken that principled stand, I would still feel very sad about the result, but I could accept that it was indeed the will of the people.
But it hasn’t been like that. It’s not just people deciding on the toss of a coin. There were many people—often among the most disadvantaged in our society, neglected by successive governments—who felt that life was so bad it could get no worse and who saw the referendum as a way to give the politicians a kicking. I doubt if many of them knew anything about the EU, beyond (maybe) the old myths about bendy bananas and banning prawn cocktail crisps.
The EU and our relationship with it is an enormously complicated subject. It’s also monumentally boring. Most people are far too busy getting on with their lives to give a thought to anything so uninteresting, especially those people whose lives are a constant struggle to survive in a world of zero-hours contracts, pitiful pay and uncertain benefits payments.
Unlike many people, I have always been interested in politics. I read the papers, listen to the radio, follow social media. I thought I knew a good deal about the EU and how it works, while being aware that it was not working very well at the moment, with so many pressures to deal with, from Greek debt to the constantly increasing numbers of refugees on its borders. I felt that whatever its problems, we ought to be working with our European neighbours to solve them, especially in our dangerous and complicated world. But I tried to keep an open mind. When the Referendum campaign began, I sought out independent websites so I could check the truth of the statements issued by both sides. I wasn’t much impressed with either campaign. The Remain side seemed to offer no positive reason for staying with the EU, beyond the fear of something worse. As for the Leave side of the argument, it soon became very clear to me that its most prominent leaders were telling downright lies, which they continued to shout from the rooftops (and the side of their bus) even when they had been shown to be untrue. And if you repeat lies at the top of your voice often enough, then they’re going to get home to people as the truth never can.
These are the people I despise, the highly intelligent educated men who knew that what they were saying was untrue but said it anyway, who told voters that we should ignore the experts, though you can bet they’ll turn to experts themselves when they want advice on important matters; men whose only interest was to win at any cost, in one case at least because they wanted political power and didn’t care how they won it.
But the person I blame most of all for what has happened, about whom I feel furiously angry, is David Cameron, who called this unnecessary and fatally damaging referendum (‘a dangerous and unnecessary distraction,’ so said Ed Milliband at the last General Election), and then took no steps to make sure that the voters were properly informed about the issues and their implications.
I pray that in time my fears will be proved wrong, that out of the ugly chaos of the present time a prosperous, tolerant and open-minded society will emerge, working in some sort of friendly partnership with an enlightened and peaceful Europe. But I fear that at best it will take a very long time, and it may not happen at all. I would like to be able to admit one day that I was wrong. For the sake of my children and grandchildren and the world in which they must live, I do not want to find myself saying ‘we told you so.’