The Referendum meta-debate

The EU Referendum debate is widely thought to have been information-light and anger-heavy. This is true enough, but in ways which might surprise. Here is a sketch of how the argument might be analysed. I am afraid it is a little personal, at least in the first para or two.

The personal bit

It turns out that I am what is classified as a cosmopolitan sort of voter, which reflects my general background as Boho AB-type (that’s middle-class, but without the income). It happens that I am – counter-stereotype – the sort of lofty Brexiteer who likes globalisation and sees the point of free trade and immigration. It happens that I am also the sort who would like, very politely, to control immigration better.

As I gently drifted from being a 65 percent Brexiteer to being a 65 percent Bremainer, I did so (I think) because I found the arguments of my preferred Bremainers more cogent. These were, more or less in order: Finkelstein, Parris, the Establishment economists and business people, Major, the Prime Minister. I found less cogent the arguments even of my preferred Brexiteers (again, more or less in order of my finding them compelling): Hannan, Redwood, IDS, Gove, Johnson and Farage.

The quality of the debate
I found rather infuriating the widespread view that “I need more facts”, “I want more evidence”, etc. It seemed to me that both sides were mischievous with their core factual argument (the Bremainers’ lost £4,300 per annum vs the Brexiteers’ lost £350-million a week). But both sides were equally taken to task about their numbers, and the Bremainers rightly more or less stuck to their number and the better sort of Brexiteers rightly more or less refined theirs.

But the non-factuality of the debate was surely inevitable? We know very little of the future: what the EU will become with or without us is veiled; the future of the world, EU and UK economies is a closed book (in or out). It is immature to suppose that a politician’s detailed prognostications are other than wish-lists. But it is also immature to suppose that a politician can do other than attempt to paint a figure based on such data and understandings as we have.

So here was a case where it was for voters to understand that the debate was necessarily a little Alice in Wonderland, and that this was not material which could be run through a calculator which might spew out a nice clear number.

It was also widely said that one could not get a good interpretation of the competing data-arguments. This seems to me to be so wholly false that it is only troubling that so many people (and I think the Breixteers far more so than the Bremainers) stuck to factoids and to non-sequiturs which had been exposed.

As an example of a non-sequitur, I take the Brexit argument that since the EU and especially its South has not shown much growth compared with Asia, the UK should leave it as though we might be contaminated. This left completely out of the equation the way that we are a northern European country, not a southern one, and anyway more like Germany than France in important respects; that Asia can out-compete all of the West when it comes to wage-rates; and of course that we have in important respects detached the UK from EU economic policies.

In general, the Bremainers were much more respectful for the quality of the arguments they put than were the Brexiteers.
As a matter of balance, I would say, however, that the Bremainers had their own failings. As an example: they said that EU immigrants pay in more than they take out. They omitted to say that probably a good deal less than half (I hazard that it might be a quarter) of mature British tax-payers (who have grown into families) pay in more tax than they take out in state benefits and transfers. The question about long-term migrants is not the balance sheet in the early years when they are young, but the balance sheet for when they are older. The issue of infrastructure-strain is similar.

As to the quality of facts and data: led by Channel 4 and followed by the BBC (and mirrored in ventures such as FullFact , the House of Commons Library and – I do think – the IFS), we are living in what will be seen as a Golden Age of internet analysis. Anyone who claims they cannot establish the truth behind politicians’ factual claims is simply too lazy to do easy checking online.

As to the temper of the debate. I am no guide to the horrors of the Twitter-sphere. I have no idea whether its nastiness betokens a new, real-world nastiness, or is merely a sort of fantasy mouthing-off by people who barely know, consider, or will stick-by, their vitriol.

But in the world of the public campaigns, media commentary and the ordinary tenor of the High Street, shops and cafes, which are all places I know a bit about, I would say that we have been spectacularly lucky in the quality of debate. I would also include in this the majority of remarks of Nigel Farage. I have been a little surprised by the tenor of some Brexiteers, and more especially by the senior Tories amongst them; and that contributed to my resisting their case. The Farage poster featuring middle eastern migrants (to put it very neutrally) was, I think, an unusually bad mis-step by him; but it will have produced its own backfire and push-back, and to that extent its nastiness – if it certainly deserves the word – was neutralised.

There is of course a wider problem that many people do now assume that The Establishment, the Elite, experts, Toffs, etc etc, are no use. This is, I think, a proxy for saying that The People (or even worse, The Crowd or Cloud), and their prejudices, hunches, appetites, and intuitions are better than experience and expertise. It is a long haul of long-standing to try to undo this nonsense, and it begins by respecting Representative Democracy. Not easy, of course, when dealing with a plebiscite.

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Publication date

22 June 2016