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Don't Let the Door Hit EU on the Way Out

28/06/2016 10:26 | Updated 28 June 2016

I can't lie to you, reader. I awoke early on Friday shocked at the result. I felt a knee-jerk feeling of horror, even. I have had my own grievances with the EU as an organisation (even helping to organise a local screening of a film highly critical of it). Yet I had an affinity to the EU, believed in its goals of trade and movement and didn't think it was right for Britain to leave, particularly at this point in time. There is much to like and dislike about the EU, just as there is with our own government.

Since the result I've had time to reflect and ponder what happens next with a sense of melancholy acceptance, but people on both sides of the debate (including myself) have clearly experienced some difficulty in separating reason from emotion throughout the referendum campaign. So this represents my attempt to do so, sans my initial despair.

From the start of the campaign I've argued that the merits or otherwise of "the EU" is far too complex a topic to be decided by a referendum. Decisions such as whether or not to allow smoking in pubs or same sex marriage are simple, binary questions on subjects we can all understand without much additional research. Those kinds of questions may well benefit from a simple gauge of public opinion. When it comes to the EU, I don't feel that I have sufficient understanding and knowledge to decide confidently whether we're better off in or out, and I've recently completed a degree in politics after seven years. There will always be some educated guesswork involved and the public isn't always best placed to decide. So if I'm not qualified, who is?

Our elected representatives - flawed as they may be - are supposed to be the voice of reason, guiding the day to day running of the country on our behalf. We delegate the vast majority of our political decision making to them, almost unthinkingly. This is why we have a representative democracy in the first place, so we do not require a constant, expensive and cumbersome stream of direct democracy. This also explains why referenda have historically been so rare.

Something I've written about before is the increased democratic deficit as a result of the loss of political power by our politicians. This is the reason why certain changes never happen and some topics aren't discussed at all. This narrowing of the Overton Window has been a major cause of both apathy and anger against the political process and politicians, both in the UK and outside of it. The referendum seemed at first to be an attempt to counter this, and nobody can attempt to deny that it grabbed the attention of the electorate.

When it came to the vote itself, some have indeed been able to reach a decision on more informed terms (and I respect those people however they voted) but many in both camps have made their decision out of fear, xenophobia, patriotism, dodgy facts, a feeling of European cosmopolitanism or even just gut instinct, but certainly not out of sound and considered judgement or a deep-seated understanding of the issues at hand.

So how did we end up here? Personally I feel that the sheer complexity of the subject meant that rather than tackling the myriad of contentious debates involved in the EU head-on, the media and campaigners on both sides went looking for simplifications, the aforementioned yes/no binaries, something they could get to grips with on more understandable terms, and they successfully found this by shifting the focus of the referendum onto immigration. When examining the voting patterns within this context, the result shouldn't really surprise us at all.

The constant stream of anti-immigrant sentiment expressed over the last few decades has been both poisonous and deafening, despite immigration being a net benefit to the economy overall and despite a declining and aging native population meaning we'll be in sore need of new workers in the decades to come. It seems pointless to re-hash those arguments again here, as they've been made many times before and it's clear that those facts aren't enough to sway opinions in any case.

Similarly, I shouldn't have to point out that leave voters aren't xenophobic on the whole. Those kinds of generalisations aren't necessarily helpful. However we cannot deny that immigration played an overarching role both in the general discourse of the referendum and in the way people arrived at their decision. Any pretext of this being an argument about the EU seemed utterly lost in the shuffle.

I would imagine that some of the more dreary forecasts of the "in" campaign are likely to prove inaccurate and I predict both the leave and remain campaigners facing a mix of relief and disappointment as the results of a necessarily complex and pragmatic renegotiation make themselves evident over the next few months and years. The status of free movement and trade, for example, remains up in the air. Currencies and stocks are likely to bounce back, but business investment could well still collapse. Neither side is likely to get exactly what they want from this result.

However, what I've concluded from the last few days is that I don't dislike the result of the vote as much as I dislike what the vote itself represents. A Britain which appears to be increasingly inward looking, intolerant and perhaps even self-destructive.

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