I will say this for David Cameron. He may not be my country’s Prime Minister for much longer, but he sure knows how to stir up a can of worms. The EU referendum debate seems to have been grunging on for an eternity. At this stage in a general election campaign we would all be curled up in a foetal position waiting for the damned thing to finish. But in this exercise in futility, the fun and games seem never-ending.
One thing’s for sure, lifelong political friendships within Cameron’s party lie in ruins. Advocates on either side of the debate have bite marks all over their legs. Once the Daily Mail readers have had their say, any show of civility and unanimity among the Tories will be exposed as a sham. How do you accuse your colleagues of deceit on one day, and refer to them as “my honourable friend” the next?
The whole exercise in political cowardice will at worst have pitched us into a kingdom of the blind. At best it will have left us with indelible memories of buffoonery and manipulation.
Lately I’ve been conducting what I call golf polls. I get the clubs out two or three times a week, and the people patient enough to play with me are many and varied, (which, given the abysmal standard of my golf, is more to their credit than mine). Among them, I’m at something of a pivot age. I’m one of the youngest in the group I play with during the week. Most of them are anything between sixty-five and eighty-five. By contrast, I’m usually the oldest of the guys I play with at the weekend. This give me the opportunity to test the water with at least two generations.
I sat down for a coffee last week with the older crowd. The chat turned to the referendum. I did a straw poll of the ten people who were there. Eight wanted to leave. Two, including me, will vote to remain.
The reasons for leaving were the usual ones. Unelected bureaucrats, pressure on the health service and school system caused by immigrants. People “coming to this country to live on benefits”. Beyond a vague hope that we might do more trade with the Commonwealth, there was not a single positive reason for leaving.
I asked them to tell me how many bureaucrats they thought there were in Brussels. A million, said one. A hundred thousand, said another. When I told them that the figure (according to the EU) is around thirty thousand, nobody reacted. When I then compared that number to the half million unelected bureaucrats in the British Civil Service (not including Northern Ireland, the police, the armed forces and the National Health Service), I also got no reaction.
The conversation turned to the health service waiting lists and overcrowded schools. All the fault of the immigrants, apparently. I suggested that since the vast majority of our immigrant population are working and paying their taxes, and since the immigration trends have been reasonably predictable over the past ten years, perhaps we should hold the government accountable for not investing in new schools and hospitals. That got no reaction either.
Then, if only to provoke a reaction, I suggested that since the seventy-somethings in the group were least likely to be affected by the result one way or another, perhaps they should not be allowed to vote. I could have been talking to the wall.
I got the impression that I could argue until I was blue in the face about all the reasons for staying in, and this crowd would not be moved. The Daily Mail has done its work. Logic has no role to play. It’s all about visceral emotion. About how we’re swamped with foreigners. How we’ve lost our country. How things are “not as they were”. About “the Muslims”, the unelected bureaucrats and the long wait in Accident and Emergency.
Last weekend, I sat down with the younger bunch. All of them are still working, and none of them want to leave. Not one. In this group, the conversation was about being in a position to change things from within. That the EU is a pretty dysfunctional organisation, but that if the country votes to remain, enough will go awry in the next few years to trigger widespread discontent throughout the EU, which in turn will lead to negotiations in which the UK will no longer be a lone voice.
Not exactly a representative sample of our voting population, I agree. No female voters. And there were no twentysomethings – people who take for granted the status quo: who value the ability to up sticks and work in Germany, France or Holland; who grew up with the social chapter; who happily pop over to Copenhagen, Milan and Barcelona with wallets stuffed with Euros.
That’s not to say there aren’t Leave supporters among the millennials. Those who can’t find a job because, they believe, the Poles and Romanians have taken them all. Or those who find themselves working on the minimum wage because of the same foreigner are also prepared to do so.
Some themes run across generations. But by and large, whatever the efforts by the politicians to present positive reasons for voting either way, all one seems to hear from voters is the negative stuff.
It sometimes seems to me that the referendum has created a lightning rod for everybody (except possibly the Scots, who have a different agenda) who is dissatisfied with their lot for just about any reason. If in doubt, blame the EU. Blaming the government is pretty futile given that they have another four years in power, so cursing the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels is the next best thing.
As for me, I just want it to end soon. The Remain side will win, despite the same media hysteria that hyped up the Scottish referendum. And the reason is very simple. When it comes down to it, the British electorate does have a measure of common sense, and most of us are not willing to parachute off a cliff blindfolded.
I want it to end soon because it’s a distraction from other stuff that matters so much more. Every morning, when I open up my laptop, I see the same faces glowering at me, reproaching me with their tears or just staring into space with expressions muted by suffering. I see Donald Trump, snarling protesters, bombed-out kids and bereaved parents, the religious righteous scowling in disapproval at the ways of the other. I see name-callers, blame merchants, faces made ugly with hatred and pain.
And I want the unkempt sophists, the smooth operators and the spin doctors to get out of my face. It’s not funny any more, if it ever was. And I pray that for the rest of my life I will never to have to witness another referendum, and that we will never again be ruled by the political cowards stupid enough to call this one.
Fat chance, I guess.