Monday, 22 February 2016

The unbearable dominance of the EU referendum

The newspaper headlines have been dominated for some time now by the EU referendum. Now that a date has been fixed, press activity has become more frenzied. The current effort is concentrated on pinning down to a view those politicians who have not already declared themselves "in" or "out".

The Labour first minister has already deprecated the timing of the referendum. He knows that Welsh public opinion is formed largely by the London-based media. (If we only had a vigorous native press as the Scots do!) The issues of the Welsh general election are therefore likely to be at the back of Welsh electors' minds. (I note that the election pitch announced in Carwyn Jones' conference speech was the simplistic "it's us or the Tories".) In theory, this blanket coverage of the EU situation should suit Liberal Democrats in Wales and in the London elections, as we have consistently been the most pro-EU party in the UK. Away from the City of London, there has been a dawning realisation that jobs of ordinary working people will almost certainly be lost - even before the negotiations for exit begin - if the referendum vote is for "Leave".

How many jobs would be lost, and how soon, is a matter of debate. Somewhere around 3 million jobs in the UK are linked to the EU. That is not to say that they are all dependent on the EU, but only a Little-Englander would claim that they would not be affected. I can believe Nigel Farage and his friends when they claim that the City would continue to thrive, but much of industry would wind down. Airbus wing production would surely move to Poland and Tata's future would be bleak, for instance.

That dispute over job numbers illustrates what will be the besetting trouble of the public debate over the spring and early summer: that both sides, but mainly the "Leavers", will be flinging extravagant claims back and forth. The unedifying AV referendum campaign of 2010 gives us a glimpse of what is to come. In that, the reactionary side resorted to misrepresentation and even downright lies, which were not corrected by that supposed bastion, the popular press. UKIP leaders have been peddling untruths for some time and surely worse is to come.

It is depressing that Iain Duncan Smith, who claims to have negotiated in Europe, is ignorant of the democratic basis of EU decision-making in claiming (as on The World This Weekend) that policy is dictated by unelected officials. (His other claim that staying in the EU increases our risk of terrorist attack smacks of desperation.) Michael Gove's statement has rather more intellectual rigour but there are some disputable points which I want to come back to in a later post. He correctly identifies that decisions are made by elected people, both in the parliament and in the council of ministers, but when he argues that "Laws which govern citizens in this country are decided by politicians from other nations who we never elected and can’t throw out." he ignores the fact that our elected ministers in the Council and our elected MEPs contribute to that law-making. He also consciously or unconsciously echoes the complaint of the Scottish Nationalists who chafe at the decisions of a Conservative government in Westminster which Scotland had overwhelmingly rejected at the polls.

In the end I fear it is going to come down to personalities as the average voter is more clear as to whom he or she trusts than they are able to evaluate all the opposing statements. So far on that score, "Remain" is winning on points!

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