Monday, 16 May 2016
Boris, Hitler and EU
It is a truism of debating that when a team resorts to invoking Hitler in support of their case they have lost the argument. Boris Johnson's comparison of the aims of the European Union to those of Adolf Hitler is a fine illustration. Not, in my view, that the "out" campaign ever had much of a serious argument in the first place. However, that does not mean that Johnson's absurd claim will have no effect. His clowning panache has considerable public appeal (as has that of the almost-as-flamboyant Nigel Farage.)
In fact Johnson's position as de facto leader, or at last most prominent spokesperson, for the "Leave" side does not bear much scrutiny. He left it to the eleventh hour to announce on which side he would be campaigning, allegedly struggling to to decide which option was the best for Britain's future. If this is true then he must find the differences finely balanced. So why, then, is he campaigning so vigorously for "Out" if he feels that it doesn't make much difference one way or the other? The alternative is that his decision was really based on which option would give him the best chance of becoming leader of the Conservative party. Neither alternative makes him a credible advocate.
I spent an hour or so last Saturday handing out leaflets (or rather, trying to hand out leaflets) explaining the case for voting "In." It was not an encouraging experience. The vast majority of people in a busy small-town centre hurried past, too preoccupied to stop and talk, or even take a leaflet. A very few took time to turn their heads and say they were voting "Yes." Rather more, and with rather more vigour, indicated "No way." The very small number who stopped to talk were for "Out." The simplistic UKIP messages of "making our own laws" and "controlling our own borders" have resonance. And the greatest of these is "controlling our own borders."
From this very small sample I suspect that the referendum is in grave danger of becoming a vote on immigration, and, sadly, in particular Muslim immigration. When it was pointed out that we do control our borders for incomers from outside the EU, and it is only within the EU that free movement operates (and will probably continue to operate if we want continued free trade access to the market) the possibility of Turkey's joining was quickly raised.
Unhappily, the evidence for the concentration on immigration above all other factors is wider than my corner of post-industrial West Yorkshire. Former prime minister John Major has warned Tory Brexiteers that they risk morphing into UKIP. The newly elected Labour mayor of London warns against the referendum becoming "a proxy for people's fears about immigration."
As is evidenced from the experience of other countries, the trouble with referendums is that voters tend to answer a question other than the one on the ballot paper. That, in my view, is why referendums should have not place in a representative democracy.
P G Wodhouse, author of the admirable Wooster novels, said of political debate: " Party now booms to party like mastodons across a primaeval swamp." This is truer than ever of this campaign and one of the reasons why people aren't listening. The "Remain" campaign needs to widen its scope beyond hyperbolic predictions of economic gloom and doom, listen to people, and present the reasoned arguments for remaining part of an exciting co-operative and civilising venture.