The EU Referendum: The challenge of democracy

image: Thauvin

jack laytonby Jack Layton

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter – Winston Churchill


On 23rd June Britain will go to the ballot box to decide whether or not we should leave the European Union. A moment of direct democracy worthy of the legacy that harks back to the public forums of ancient Greece. Come 24th June we will know definitively whether or not the British public is in favour of #Brexit or #Bremain. Yet as the quote from Churchill alludes, democracy is not an unproblematic practice (particularly when a catchy #hashtag can sway an argument).

In an essay on the flaws of opinion polls as used in politics, Pierre Bourdieu observes that when asked ‘what do you think about the policies of the Minister of Education?’ there are ‘at least sixty questions’ in that singular opinion. Questions covering multiple aspects of schooling: should the curricula be reformed? Should grades be based on final exams? Should teachers go on strike? And on and on. It seems that the referendum on the EU is this kind of problem. How on earth is somebody meant to distil the multiple workings of the EU, the good, the bad, the (at least 50) shades of grey, into a single vote on remain or go? This problem is compounded when the current quality of public discourse is about as deep as a puddle on a drizzly May afternoon.

To give a sense of the challenge facing the British electorate it is worth sketching (as briefly as possible) what the EU is actually made up of.

There is the European Commission: comprising of 28 commissioners from each of the member countries that administers finance and develops laws. The European Parliament: with 751 MEPs from across the member states that vote on the laws proposed by the commission. The Council of the European Union: where the governments of the member states meet to discuss EU policy. The European Court of Justice: that arbitrates on disagreements between the Commission, the Parliament, and the Council. *deep breath*. The European Central Bank: the central bank for the Euro, which administers monetary policy for the 19 members of the Eurozone. The European Court of Human Rights: which overseas the European Convention on Human Rights (which the UK Government has already decided to attempt to repeal) – which should be noted is not a formal part of the EU, but is de facto EU policy. *deep breath*. Then there are the multiple geographic spaces of Europe: the member-states of the EU, the members of the European Economic Area, the members of the Eurozone, and the members of the Schengen Area – all of which to a lesser of greater extent could be considered Europe.

The EU is a fundamentally complicated entity. The outcome of staying or leaving, essentially unknowable. There are too many different sets of procedures, agreements, and relationships, working on different topics in different ways, to be able to come up with a net cost / benefit calculation. Not to mention the unquantifiable effect of Britain’s reputation on the international stage if it decided to withdraw. This is not an easy decision – no matter your personal political persuasion.

This resistance to easy categorisation makes the EU referendum a special challenge for current ways of discussing politics.

Godwin’s Law states that as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1. This speaks to the essentially polarising nature of political discussion on the internet. As communities withdraw into their echo chambers, and people condense opinions into 140 characters or less, political opinions and their representations become caricatures ad infinatum until armies of straw-men stare at each other across a black turgid field of political spin.

The task of discussing the complicated, essentially unknowable, potentially negotiable, aspects of leaving or remaining in the EU in this context is formidable.

What’s more, most people don’t care.

As people go into the ballot box they are likely to go with their gut, perhaps having dwelled on one or two key messages. That is why the Conservatives did so well in the general election (and the left were so shocked that they did so). They carefully and consistently hit key, intuitively correct, easily communicated messages. Stick with us we have a long term economic plan. Labour overspend. Labour will get in bed with the SNP. We will be tough on migrants.

This process is beginning to repeat itself with the EU referendum. The Brexit camp has a few key messages that are easily communicated and are broadly appealing. We want control of our borders. We don’t want to be told what to do by Brussels. British business is best. All helped by the personal embodiment of this style of politics, Boris Johnson. He is an appealing character (and that word is used quite deliberately) that is able to command attention. Not the kind of attention that will sit down and debate the subtleties of policy trajectories in the European Parliament, or the multiple committees and working arrangements that exist to collaborate across the EU on terrorism, trade, and justice. Rather, the kind of attention that is clickable, a bombastic guffawing of faux posh-ness, hit home with a pithy quip before cycling off into the distance.

The challenge of the EU is retaining attention. This is not meant as a dismissive swipe – that people should pay more attention. Rather, it is a challenge to embrace the current media environment, and consider the role of attention in democratic practice. One of Yanis Varoufakis’ proposals for making the EU more democratic is to publically stream committee and council meetings; a laudable reform. However, this doesn’t catch people’s attention, rather overwhelms the public with more things to attend to.  A better approach would be to be more vocal about what the EU is doing, how, and why. With clear lines of communication between those wielding the power and the public.

The immediate task with the EU referendum, is to get better at holding people’s attention. Brexit and the Conservatives, under the tutelage of Lynton Crosby, have become masters of this in its most cynical form. However, it is important for the sake of democratic process not to do this only with fearful claims or dog-whistle racism. Barack Obama won the White House on a message of hope, a rallying call: ‘Yes We Can’. There is a need for simple narratives with integrity. Intuitive stories that can deal with complexity, but do not bombard with jargon.

I worry that the apparatus supporting discussion of the referendum is not up to scratch. I fear that this will be the largest proxy vote on race there has been in contemporary Britain. I am concerned at the level of misinformation that will be pedalled and not scrutinised. However, the answers to these problems is not more detail, or more complexity. It is using the valuable attention granted by the public and making the most of it.

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