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Leader comment >

This referendum serves no one

WHEN a government sees an impending threat to the people in its care, it fails in its duty if it does nothing to remove that threat. Sometimes the threat is unclear. Sometimes it is not in the power of the government to prevent it. Neither is the case today. Financial and political experts such as the IMF and international credit agencies are overwhelmingly convinced that the threat is real. And the government in question can put an end to it at a stroke. The threat is to the UK; and the solution is to cancel the EU referendum.

It is not simply that the consequences of a no vote are widely believed to be disastrous, both politically and financial, both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The very holding of the referendum is causing damage to the economy, weakening the UK’s standing in Europe and the world, and driving a wedge between the Government and the governed. It has given an airing to ugly sentiments about refugees and immigrants. It has encouraged people who should know better to reduce a complex political and economic argument into a few simplistic slogans. It has devoured vast amounts of time and energy to no purpose. And the debate is unedifying and uninformative: one side asserts a fact; the other side refutes it; the first side simply reasserts it. There is no sense that voters will have any greater grasp of the issues in a month’s time than they had a month ago.

It is worth rehearsing the history of this referendum. The call came initially from the UK Independence Party. At its heart was an old-fashioned fear of immigration, what used to be called racism when immigrants were predominantly of a different skin colour. UKIP sanitised this fear by directing the blame at the European Union, and strengthened it by rolling in fears about housing and employment. Such fears are not groundless, but the causes of low wages and inadequate housing are far more complex. Like all far-right parties, UKIP never had very great support nationally, but it was concentrated, and threatened the seats of many Conservative MPs. In the end, Mr Cameron bowed to pressure within his party from those who were fearful of UKIP and those who were sympathetic to it, and agreed to adopt the idea of a referendum on membership, albeit postponed for as long as possible. It was a stunt.

The reason for the referendum, never very convincing, disappeared when the Conservative Party won the 2015 General Election. The threat within the party from its right wing was seen off; UKIP was trounced. The issue was immediately given new life, however, by the refugee crisis, which demanded of Europe an intelligent, compassionate, co-ordinated, and costly response. Instead, national interest won out, and nowhere more convincingly than in the UK, where talk of a “European problem” came to mean one that existed on the other side of the English Channel. Since then, encouraged by Brexit campaigners, the EU has become synonymous with uncontrolled immigration, not least the imminent arrival of 79 million Turks.

At this point in any sort of argument about Europe, the question of balance comes up. Should not a fair representation of the debate give equal weight to the opposing views? For some issues, however, the evidence falls heavily on one side of the argument — for example, climate change, vaccinations and autism, or, in the religious sphere, creationism. The Bank of England, the Treasury, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, many business leaders, security chiefs, leading academics, and so on are routinely trusted with significant decisions. Now, suddenly, they are the enemies of the truth, dismissed as the political elite, “Westminster”, the “Establishment”, the “political class” by backwoodsmen such as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Michael Gove. The attack has worrying echoes of the destructive rhetoric that has brought Donald Trump to within a few technicalities of securing the Republican nomination in the United States.

Challenging political élites when they err has value; undermining them in order to recruit poorly informed voters, regardless of the rights of the case, is dangerously destabilising. If the verdict on 23 June is to remain within the EU, those who vote for Brexit, egged on by influential sections of the media, will not quietly disperse, especially if there is a low turn-out or a close result. Instead, the new rancour that has been introduced into politics is likely to remain, souring relationships and casting a persistent shadow over relationships with European neighbours, who will point to Scotland as an example of a referendum that failed to settle anything.

Paradoxically, although we have had a Remain vote from the Church of Scotland, the Anglican Churches in the UK, have by and large, been more reticent. It has been hard, none the less, to find episcopal support for Brexit beyond the odd retired archbishop. The reason for this, we suggest, goes beyond ordinary common sense, and can be found in a conviction that the Trinitarian God created humans to exist in relationships, and that these relationships, following New Testament teaching, have no boundaries. Christianity is a naturally international movement, and anything that elevates the smaller group, even the organic family, over the larger is to be resisted.

It will be argued that to cancel the referendum is an insult to democracy and to the British people. But the essence of parliamentary democracy is that complex, nuanced decisions can be made by those with the time and expertise to consider them. Of course, politicians can still err, as when the referendum was added to the Conservative manifesto pledges. But the true insult is the suggestion that a complex decision about a cat’s cradle of financial, political, social, legal, and cultural relationships can be reduced to a yes/no, in/out question. Many of the European institutions work well; others are costly and inefficient. The effect of a Leave vote will be to condemn them all. Conversely, a Remain vote will endorse them all. Neither represents the true wishes of anyone who has considered the matter in detail, be they low-salaried workers or top business leaders.

There is a real danger, then, that to Britain’s usual, and culpable, indifference to Europe the referendum will add a bass note of hostility, which will undermine the commitment needed to improve the structure and its workings. This is why it is not enough to leave the referendum in place. Neither result will produce a healthy outcome. The referendum should never have been called. It should be called off.

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