I’ve screwed up: I’m registered to vote in Liverpool but am going to London on the day of the EU referendum. I know I know, I should have organised a postal vote but I didn’t.
The voting card has a provision for people like me. It says something like this: “if you get called away on work, arrange someone to vote for you, a proxy, and contact us immediately.” This is where my old mate Pete comes in. He lives round the corner from me in Toxteth and could be my proxy.
“Is it legal?” asked Pete suspiciously. Having convinced him of the legality of proxy voting, and exchanging lots of silly text messages, he then told me he was off to Northern Ireland and he wouldn’t be able to vote either. Time was running out. I thought of Ivan the Bulgarian dishwasher, who lives next door, but Ivan doesn’t appreciate me because I object to the loud house music he sometimes blasts us with at night. And now it’s too late. I’m writing this on the train to London.
But if there is anybody in Toxteth who is willing to be my last-minute proxy, this is what I would tell them:
Thanks for helping me out.
I don’t usually vote in elections as I believe “whoever you vote for Government wins.” When I look at the British government I see an unbroken series of bad policies that were started by Thatcher, sustained by Blair and reinforced by Cameron. When the Lib-Dems were in government they toed the Tory line. They all worship the same God – big business – and are destroying the environment.
In the US of A, the same thing happens: Obama’s policies are broadly similar to those of his predecessor. I believe in local government, ancient Greek style, with city-regions running their own shows; this is the only way to curb the growing powers of the multinationals and the banks-that-cannot-fail.
At the same time, I have a healthy respect for government. I have lived under an oppressive regime, in Tibet, and under corrupt governments in Eastern Europe; I’ve seen war in Bosnia and Kosovo and know how close we all live to that chaos. I’m grateful to government for giving me water, infrastructure, security and enough freedom to do my own thing. I just don’t want to vote for it.
This referendum is different. Unlike general elections, this one matters. The propaganda campaigns have been confusing and unhelpful and I’m not sure if my contribution adds anything new, but this is what I believe.
The EU is Corrupt, Wasteful and Needs to be Reformed
It’s hard to deny that the EU is a vast bureaucracy that needs to be reformed – but you could say the same about any government department. When you bring thousands of people together into an organisation you get the same result – an incomprehensible, wasteful bureaucracy – which is why the only way to fix the problem is to localise government. At the moment if we leave the EU we would be shooting ourselves in the foot for the simple reason that we would risk cutting our industry off from 40% of its market. There is a lot of will among EU citizens to reform the EU and I’m sure many would be grateful if Britain coordinated this, as we have done a good job of improving our own public sector. (David Cameron’s proposal to reform the EU before leaving it was a non-starter; why should any of the other members listen to someone who wants to leave?)
Destroy the EU
A UN diplomat recently told me that “the EU is not as strong as it appears.” My view is that if Britain leaves the EU, other countries will want referendums, discipline will be lost and the whole superstructure could collapse. Do we really want to do that? Do we want to destroy the world’s biggest market place? Do we want to re-introduce war as an option between European countries? Most of us have taken the peace of the last 70 years for granted but war is a spectre that is always waiting in the wings, waiting for the right mix of nutters to get control of competing nations. I saw this happening in the former Yugoslavia (where Serbian football supporters were organised into an army and sent into Bosnia to kill Muslims). The same thing could have happened to Romania and Hungary had they not been welcomed into the EU. In Romania, the ethnic Hungarian party has been part of government since the 1990s. Nationalism breeds war and the EU has kept nationalism in check.
The Big Lie
One of the most convincing arguments put forward by the Brexit camp, and their tabloid supporters, was that Britain’s laws are being passed by “unelected” bureaucrats in Brussels. This is totally untrue and I don’t understand why the “remain” camp didn’t make this clear; this could have been one of their strongest arguments. The fact is that the European Commission, the bête-noir of the Brexit camp, is the civil service of the EU and, just like our civil service, they are indeed “unelected bureaucrats”. They propose EU laws (known as Directives) organise feedback from 28 member states and pass them up to the body which actually passes them: The European Council – which is made up of elected ministers from the various member states. It’s complicated, may well be corrupt but it is democratic.
Flooded by Immigrants
Another convincing argument the Brexit tabloids have used to great effect is the story that Britain is being flooded with immigrants – apparently the NHS and public services are being bled dry by this flood of ill, unemployable, probably criminal, benefit-scrounging foreigners. What the tabloids don’t say is that the NHS relies heavily on immigrant skills, as does industry, and they come because we need a labour force. They have also managed to confuse the public into believing that over 330,000 illegal immigrants (mainly from the Middle East and North Africa) get into Britain every year. The truth of the matter is that most of these immigrants come here from other EU member states for work, and many will return home. The irony is that if we leave the EU we will have to keep on accepting these EU migrants if we want access to the EU’s single market as, like Norway and other members of the European Economic Area, we’ll have to accept one of the main terms of the EU deal: free movement of people.
Rule by Tabloid
One of the reasons I don’t believe in the British government is because they seem to be led by the tabloids, many of whom promote xenophobic views. I first noticed this phenomenon under the Thatcher government which had an unhealthily close relationship with Rupert Murdoch and his rags. But Tony Blair and David Cameron have followed the trend and have ignored opportunities (like Leveson) to curb their powers. The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Express are rabidly pro-Brexit and I’m convinced they are the driving force behind this suicidal desire to jump into the economic wilderness.
Follow the Brexit Leaders
My final reason for wanting to stay in the EU, and reform it from the inside, is the leaders of the Brexit campaign. I don’t think much of David Cameron but he did come up with the great quote about UKIP – he called them a bunch of “swivel eyed loonies”. I personally don’t trust Messrs Farage, Johnson and Gove and don’t want them to turn Britain into some neo-con testing ground for their corporate supporters. It reminds me of what happened in Iraq: they promised freedom but delivered a government (and constitution) that had been designed by the oil industry. Iraq is a reminder that the strongest countries can be reduced to chaos relatively easily.
President Obama was asked about the threat of Donald Trump and he said he wasn’t too worried as he trusts the American people to make the right decision. I feel the same way about the British people – as they stand on the precipice they will make the right decision. I think the result will be similar to the 2014 Scottish referendum – when we were faced with an equally unnecessary question – and I’m confident that over 55% will vote to maintain the status quo.
One final point: referendums are toxic. They divide people into angry, opposing camps and cause rifts that take generations to heal. They bring out the worst in people, politicians and the media. I once did a short course in management and one of the most useful lessons was that voting is divisive and consensus is better, although more time consuming.
I keep wondering why the media have ignored the historical precedents: referendums (or plebiscites in the history books) are a favoured tactic of the invading dictator. Hitler used them to great effect when he invaded a hapless neighbour and, in 2014, Putin used one to show that 96.7% of the Crimean population were delighted to have been invaded by Russia.
I rest my case. Now go and vote.
Photo credit: A Nazi “Poster of the Week” celebrating the Saarland referendum of 1935. Thanks to the Anglo-German Historial Trust.