Today strikes me as a good day to consider what we can learn from our experiences since the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the EU. Here are some of the dangers we might either continue to live with, or decide to do something about:
- A referendum treated as a casual question. A referendum can be a dangerous thing. It shouldn’t be promised lightly, or initiated without a great deal of thought – and the role and responsibility of an incumbent government in a referendum campaign needs clarity and safeguards. Above all, the deciding margins and legal status need to be explicit.
- A Prime Minister who makes policy by stealth, without consultation, consensus or transparency.
- Power without accountability, in the hands of groups like the ERG, IEA and others.
- Ministers who use their position to set events in train, and then walk away from the resulting damage.
- Demagogues who whip up division and resentment on the basis of lies for which they bear no political accountability.
- An opposition party too willing to let the government’s mistakes unroll, regardless of the consequences, rather than having the courage to challenge them in parliament.
- Dirty money in the political system.
- A parliamentary system still based on convention and “gentlemen’s agreements”, but where gentlemanly* behaviour is the exception (*and I mean that in a platonic, gender-neutral sense).
- Media ranging from lazy and uncritical to xenophobic and mendacious, too happy to profit from a narrative that the UK’s problems are all Someone Else’s Fault, and too willing to let spurious claims go unchallenged.
- A regulatory system ill-equipped to cope with the large-scale, systematic abuse of social media and personal data, domestically and across borders.
It’s not a full list, by any means, but when I look back over it, one thing stands out: Leave voters don’t feature in it. Those factors are the cause of Leave votes, not the consequence of Leave votes.
Our government has distinguished itself (in the worst possible way) by perpetuating a toxic polarisation of public opinion, and by failing to take a single step to reconcile or unite the public behind a workable vision. It has also dishonestly ridden the myth that the EU is the root of all the UK’s ills. If there is a way forward from where we are today, it must start there; it must move us towards an honest examination of the causes of the UK’s social, economic and political woes, and it must lead to policies that reflect a national consensus.
I make no assumptions about where, on the political spectrum, that vision would come from, because this is not a matter of party politics – it’s a matter of leadership, integrity and open, honest, accountable public debate.
We have never had such a clear lesson in the factors that prevent such a debate from taking place. They are right in front of us, staring us in the face. They have been flushed out into the open for all to see, and what they tell us is that most of the current dysfunction we see is not the fault of voters – whether Leavers or Remainers. But if we fail to act on that lesson, we will have no-one to blame but ourselves.