Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Polarisation, balance, and the EU referendum "debate"

"Damn braces; bless relaxes," wrote Blake. 

Up to a point, William.

A degree of argued opposition is essential in public life. Balance is not static; living systems maintain equilibrium through continually changing balances between opposing forces. A tightrope walker at a lethal height above the ground is not balanced in stasis; she is making small checks and balances all the time. If she achieved a frozen, static balance, she'd fall, because the wire she walks on is moving all the time.

Thus it is with politics. A perfectly static state would be a fascist dictatorship, eg North Korea. We need disagreement and argument to keep moving, keep adjusting to a changing world.

But there seems to me to be something in our culture that makes us rush to opposites, to need dramatic confrontation. Opinions, and people, polarise quickly and dig in. It's almost as if we are frightened of the natural to and fro between opposing arguments, and must rush to a static position out on the wing of an argument, frozen in hostility.

The entire "debate" about the imminent UK EU referendum has been a disaster. Both sides have attempted to frighten us, and have attacked - sneered at - their opponents, especially if they are in the same political party.They moved to this position quickly, too. There would have been time for reasoned statements, productive argument.

To judge from street-level interviews, many of us have little idea of how the EU actually works, what its democratic processes are. We have little idea of the true social and economic effect of EU immigration. We understand little of the complexities of the relationship between EU and UK law and regulation.

Rather than try to educate us, and engage in rational argument, our political class has, in the main, rushed to their barricades and found the most emotive slogans, the most simplified messages, they could find.

They have betrayed us. 

Prime Minister Cameron launched the whole referendum idea to try to heal splits in the Conservative party, and to fend off UKIP. The Labour Party has been very slow to really speak out for Remain, I suspect because they know that a large proportion of Labour voters don't support it. 

I find value in the idea that we pay and elect our MPs to make decisions on our behalf on complex and detailed matters. Membership of the EU is a complex and detailed matter; it's about much more than a vague feeling such as "get your country back" or "it's safer to Remain." We needed skilled thinkers and speakers to explain, to educate and inform us. 

What we got instead was a threat about World War III, and a mythical £350 million per week. When the dust settles - if it ever does - I hope they feel suitably ashamed of themselves. They have put their power play way ahead of a true concern for the rest of us.

The two sides in this "debate" are freezing out the chance of a productive consideration of facts, and intelligent analyses of what leaving or staying might mean. The interchange of informed views and facts has been replaced by slogan-hurling and fear-mongering, negative campaigning rather than discussion and analysis. In effect, they have created a static balance between two extreme positions.

We the people are about to fall off the high wire. We may be about to vote Brexit with a head full of emotive rhetoric, sound bites, half-truths, the odd big lie, and a massive list of resentments which the political establishment has failed to deal with.

They have betrayed us, and they are presiding over a national disgrace, whichever way the vote goes.

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