Well then. For what it's worth, after the initial disbelief and disappointment, my basic response to the referendum result is the 'rolling up my sleeves and getting on with it' one. I won't be at all sorry if for one reason or another we never actually do end up leaving the EU - e.g. if the country ends up in such a deep economic, political and / or constitutional mess that Article 50 is never invoked. But I'm not pinning my hopes on that, and I'm certainly not signing any petitions calling for a new referendum under different rules (though I don't at all mind other people signing that petition as a way of registering the extent of disappointment and anger in the country). Rather, I now want to focus on trying to make this country the best place it can possibly be, given the hand we are now holding.
[That said, I think I will
have a go at claiming the Irish (and therefore EU) citizenship to which I am perfectly entitled by dint of having an Irish grandmother - though it won't be a trivial process. As far as I can tell
, I'll need no less than nine original copies of birth / marriage / death certificates and certified passports, including one (the original birth certificate on which the whole thing rests) which would have been issued in County Sligo in (I think) 1912. Yikes!]
Anyway, going back to making this country the best place it can possibly be, living through the entire referendum process has certainly done a lot to reaffirm my liberalism. Two main issues stand out, both connected, and both of which strongly reinforce (for me) the essential core of liberalism - a concern with excessive concentrations of power, and a desire to break them down and redistribute it.
Firstly, the power concentrated into the hands of people like Paul Dacre
and Richard Desmond
. For decades now, newspapers like the Daily Mail
and Daily Express
have been publishing front-page lies and hatred about both immigrants and the EU, while inadequate bodies for press regulation have failed to challenge them, and, on the rare occasions when they were were
successfully challenged, they have only needed to publish retractions in tiny print on the inside pages of the papers. Meanwhile, the requirement on the broadcast media to provide balanced political coverage is interpreted as an instruction to give equal air-time to voices on either side, rather than to challenge lies themselves or identify any kind of prevailing consensus. This approach has been characterised by some
as "Shape of the Earth: views differ".
At first sight, it may seem illiberal to restrict the freedom of the press, but the press is in any case not currently free from powerful individuals seeking to propagate lies for their own financial or political gain. More fundamentally, a democracy (which is a tool for distributing political freedom) cannot function properly if the people who live in it do not have access to accurate and impartial information on which to base their voting decisions. See e.g. Russia or North Korea for details. And it is very clear indeed that in this referendum (as also in the AV referendum five years ago), people voted on the basis of claims which were untrue, while any attempts by moderate people to counter those claims, or the decades worth of misinformation and bigotry which they tapped into, were hopelessly drowned out by the power of the tabloid press. If that press had been properly regulated years ago, this might not have happened.
Secondly, the power concentrated into the hands of the 'big two' political parties by our First Past The Post voting system. One of the most common arguments against proportional political systems is that they allow members of extremist parties to win seats at elections. But in my view, this is a good thing. Once a party's representatives have been elected to office, they are subject to the white light of accountability. If they implement policies which turn out to be disastrous, or fail to deliver on their promises, they will lose their popularity and be voted out again. In my view, we would be much better off today if UKIP had started winning council seats and parliamentary seats in serious numbers twenty years ago. Then, people might have had the chance to discover that they are a bunch of self-interested con-merchants while the damage they could inflict was still relatively limited, and before we arrived at the almighty mess we are in now.
Furthermore, most proportional voting systems, but especially the Single Transferable Vote
, make politicians much
more accountable to the electorate than FPTP. Safe seats largely disappear, parties campaign meaningfully against one another in all parts of the country, and voters can choose between individual members of the same party, based on nuanced preferences (e.g. liking Blairite Labour candidates but not Corbynistas), without harming that party's overall political prospects. I believe that if we had been using STV already for decades, the main parties would not have been able to get away with parachuting their favoured candidates into seats where voters were not being presented with any meaningful alternative option. Then, we would not have the huge yawning gap between the electorate and their supposed representatives which seems to have contributed to enough of that electorate deciding to use the EU referendum to deliver them a kicking in return for years of neglect and dismissal. Under STV, parties would have had an incentive to develop real solutions to the problems which older working-class voters are trying to express, rather than just telling them it's all the fault of immigrants and the EU. Even UKIP would probably have evolved into a more responsive, solution-focused party, rather than the fantasists they are.
If you've been nodding along while reading the above, and would like to help solve these problems for the future, here are some things you could do (if you haven't already):
1. Join Hacked Off
, who are campaigning for a free and accountable press. It's free to sign their declaration or sign up for campaign bulletins, though of course they would love donations too.
2. Join the Electoral Reform Society
, Unlock Democracy
and / or Make Votes Matter
, all of which are campaigning in different ways and with different emphases to improve our political system. It's £24 p.a. (or less for concessions) to join the ERS and Unlock Democracy, and free (though again donations welcome) to join Make Votes Matter.
3. Join the Liberal Democrats
. I know we're far from perfect. We too have floundered in the white light of accountability. But we are the only political party in the UK which stands fundamentally and explicitly for the liberal principles I have discussed above. If you'd like to know more about what we think we stand for, read the preamble to our constitution
. The final paragraph (beginning "Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries...") explains why we have always been, and will always remain, committed to collaborative international organisations like the EU.
4. Join any other political party. Yes, even UKIP (though I hope you'll prefer not to). Because the more people in this country are members of political parties, the smaller the gulf and the better the dialogue between politicians and the electorate.Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.