Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The two referendum campaigns.


I got a call from the woman who runs Denholme Elders, a support group for older people in this village perched on top of the South Pennines. They'd been discussing what they wanted to do and had decided they wanted someone to talk to them about the forthcoming EU referendum - could I oblige.

I obliged and set out to give as balanced a presentation about the issues, for and against, as I could. I think I did a passing fair job and I got a little confirmation after about three-quarters of an hour when one gentleman said something like "OK Simon but how are you going to vote?"

It was an interesting hour where some, shall we say, pretty robust views were expressed in that 'do you really think I give a damn' manner that anyone working with the elderly will know. What was striking was that these old people weren't thinking selfishly about their circumstances but rather were asking questions about the sort of country their children and grandchildren would live in. They asked about jobs, welfare benefits, crime and immigration. And they were pretty universally appalled by the lack of seriousness and substance in the rhetoric of the two national campaigns.

Anyone whose sole appraisal of this referendum campaign is through the slogans of Vote Leave or Stronger In - as well as the writings of a host of media experts, bloggers and pundits - would despair at what has become of British politics. An avalanche of half-truths, insults, personal attacks and patronising condescension - plus a sort of proxy war over who succeeds David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party - has buried the real debate. And, as I saw in Denholme, there is a real debate.

During the first (and slightly quieter) part of the campaign, we had local elections here in Bradford. This meant that we spoke with perhaps a thousand people. A good number of these pushed aside our plea to talk about why they needed a Conservative councillor to ask about the referendum. Some had made their mind up but most hadn't and wanted to explore the issues. This wasn't from a 'please tell me how to vote' perspective but rather a conversation, the sort of engagement you'd have with friends or colleagues.

I've enjoyed this aspect of the referendum because most people know they've been entrusted with a very significant decision and are taking that responsibility seriously. Even last night one person was saying 'I'm voting out but I really want to hear the in case one more time to be sure.' This sort of engagement is in marked contrast to the scaremongering, divisive national campaigns - no-one's falling out, they're just trying to decide what they'll do on Thursday.

For me, after a lifetime in politics - I joined the Conservative Party in 1976 - it is affirmation of two things. Firstly that, given the responsiblity, people can and do take political decision-making seriously and can be trusted. And secondly that our current system, dominated by a London-based media and London-based politicians, does not deserve those people's trust and support. It's not just the familiar 'Westminster bubble' line but something more profound, it's a complete disconnection from the real lives, worries, loves and concerns of those people. Except when they can patronise them as some sort of victim, as vulnerable, or as people these caring politicians can do things do - most often in the form of telling them to stop something (eating burgers, vaping, smoking, drinking, telling jokes).

I saw a tweet - I think is was from the writer and journalist, Gaby Hinsliff - talking about the bitterness of the referendum campaign and the likely bitterness of the aftermath. And this is true, if your world is the world of the London media and London politics. Out here in the sticks people will simply get up on Friday morning and go to work, take the dog for a walk, look after the grandchildren, pop to the shops - do the sort of things they'd do on any other Friday morning. There might be a little disappointment if their vote was for the losing side or pleasure if for the winning option. But there'll be no bitterness - except maybe a sense that our national politics was shown to be nasty, selfish, short-term and consescendingly righteous.



Sean said...

Man meets nice old people.
Therefore, people are nice.

asquith said...

I'll be voting to remain because I don't think it takes much imagination to think what Stoke-on-Trent will look like with Farridge and Johnson running the show, I don't join in with the immigrant-bashing (the Poles in this city have regenerated otherwise half-empty districts in a way no government programme could, and the Polish shops wouldn't be replaced with something "English", they'd just go back to being boarded up if they weren't there) and because I'm a staunch, 100% supporter of the British union...

... And I accuse the Tories and UKIP of pandering to English nationalism, and think this would be the final push to Scottish seperation from the rUK, a total disaster in the making that I think many Tories and kippers would wink at out of cynicism.

The leavers are generally authoritarian and nationalistic and nothing at all like libertarians like Gove, Hannan and yourself. Theoretically there could be a libertarian, Whigish Brexit but that's almost as unlikely to happen as whatever Dennis Skinner imagines is going to be the result.

(I don't really think the Leavers have thought through what they'd do after Brexit, probably because they belong to competing and contradictory tendencies, and I wouldn't trust them with the serious and detailed negotiations).

The national result? I've got no idea, but we need to be straining ourselves to be one nation, English, Scottish, Welsh & Irish, on June the 24th, and I fear this won't happen. I won't be losing my Leave friends and neighbours as I'm not particularly bothered and accept a Leave vote might happen, but discord will definitely be in a lot of places.

Anonymous said...

Setting aside the referendum result, one of the most significant outcomes of this experience should be the belated realisation amongst the London-centric politicos and their parasites that the whole world does not start and end within the M25, and that the 80% of folk living and working outside that virtual ring of fantasy have an elasticity-limit of how long they will take being completely ignored before they snap.
The EU referendum finally gave them an opportunity, without compromising their basic political preferences, to snap - the elite would be well advised to take note because, if they don't respond this time, the next snap could be much louder, much messier and a whole lot bloodier. They have been warned.