The upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership within the European Union should not be taking place.
David Cameron’s decision to put this monumental political choice to a public vote was strange when he first announced it and now seems ridiculous that it will end up determining Britain’s future for decades to come.
Firstly, the real reason why it is taking place has little to do with empowering the public.
The Prime Minister made a promise to hold a referendum to appease the anti-EU wing of his party and its support.
Cameron was not happy about it. In fact, he said in a speech in January 2013 that he had been under pressure by MPs to deliver a referendum and that “disillusionment” with the EU was at an “all-time high.” So effectively, it was an exercise in party management and a successful one at that. It played at least some part in securing enough votes to return the Conservatives into government with a majority.
Even the opposition could see why he did it. Back in 2013 even Lord Mandelson, former European commissioner and Labour cabinet minister supported this claim and said Cameron was putting forward a “completely bogus and rather phoney set of demands and circumstances” to appease critics in his party.
Herein lies a problem before we even go into discussing the campaigns. This referendum was not the result of noble motives, but because David Cameron was really worried that he was not going to get re-elected.
Make no mistake about it, the outcome will be of the most significant moments in British history. Whether Brits vote to remain in the 28-nation bloc, or instead pull the country out, the ramifications will be absolutely massive. This leads onto another problem.
Too many people don’t know what they are voting on
After what feels like an eternity of campaigning, the majority of the British public knows no more about the EU and the facts related to this debate than they did in February when the date of the referendum was announced.
This is not me being condescending. In fact, members of the public are the first to admit that they are not fully equipped with enough knowledge to make an informed decision in this referendum.
Nearly four in ten (37%) said that they don’t know very much or know nothing at all about the issues surrounding the UK’s EU membership, according to ORB research published earlier this month.
This is such a shame considering that a record number of people registered to take part in this referendum with turnout expected to be over 70%. But it ought to have us very concerned too.
That’s because this referendum looks like is going to be decided by a winning margin of no more than 6%. Yet, nearly 40% of people say that they are not informed about what they are voting on. This means that the uninformed vote could decide the outcome. This is alarming.
Here is something even more alarming. When Ipsos MORI tested the public on some key issues fundamental to the in/out debate last month, it found that the majority of respondents were totally wrong about most issues.
For example, the majority of respondents thought that EU immigrants made up 15% of the British population (around 10.5 million people). In reality, it is 5% (around 3.5 million). Plus, nearly four in ten Brits thought that the number of children in countries elsewhere in the EU receiving Child Benefit from the UK was at least forty times the actual level.
On top of that, latest polls from YouGov show that people do not even trust what the campaigns are saying anyway:
The Leave campaign has generally been…
— Britain Elects (@britainelects) June 21, 2016
The Remain campaign has generally been…
— Britain Elects (@britainelects) June 21, 2016
It is clear that we need to think seriously about this. Putting a decision of this magnitude in the hands of a population that desperately needs more information is not a sensible course of action.
This referendum has polluted democracy, not enhanced it
But, let’s be clear. This is not the fault of the public.
Even when Brits want to be given the facts, all they are given is campaign material that is based on cherry-picking and presenting statistics that support the campaign’s claim. Some are outright untruths.
Hugo Dixon, founder of the independent InFacts, actually spent Tuesday evening pointing out the untruths spouted by politicians in the huge referendum debate on the BBC. InFacts describes itself as “a journalistic enterprise making the fact-based case for Britain to remain in the European Union.” All its articles puts the stats politicians use to the test.
Here is an example:
Meanwhile, Tim Harford’s article “How politicians poisoned statistics” is essential reading on this very big problem too. He cites a series of major claims that have been made during this campaign that have a very casual relationship with fact at best. Here are some glaring examples from both sides of the debate.
1. David Cameron claimed last month that leaving the EU would cost each UK household £4,300 a year. Full Fact — the Britain’s independent fact-checking authority — later dismissed this figure. It said (emphasis mine): “Despite the poster and the publicity, this research doesn’t really tell us what families will experience. Taken as a prediction of the cost to families, £4,300 is almost certainly wrong, and it’s not helpful to focus on it.”
2. Similarly, the claim made by Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson that EU membership costs Britain £350 million a week has been repeatedly debunked both by Full Fact and the UK Statistics Authority, which is the body that polices the use of statistics by civil servants and politicians. Yet, the Leave campaign has yet to admit that the £350 million claim is wrong.
A decision of this magnitude demands honest debate but what we have heard so far has been a far cry from that.
It has been an ugly wrestling match between two campaigns which has resulted in the British public being bombarded with untruths.
This obviously is no basis for any referendum — never mind the most important in Britain’s history.
We elect politicians to make these decisions
The public should not have to be burdened with making such a mammoth political decision in the first place.
After all, we are a representative democracy. We elect MPs to make decisions on our behalf because we trust and accept their judgment and expertise. That is because, like it or not, politicians are more qualified than the public to make political decisions.
This is another reason why this referendum is so pointless.
The decision facing the British public on June 23 is clearly one the politicians really ought to be making. That is why we elect a government — to make those decisions. The issue of the nation’s EU membership is laden with intricacies and complexities. It should have been thrashed out in parliament for months with the help of leading industry figures — not put to a one-off public vote.
But, here we are, on the eve of the most important referendum in the country’s history with a significant portion of the electorate feeling like they do not have the information they need to make an informed judgment.
Holding a public vote on the nation’s destiny may be the romantic option but it certainly is not the rational one.
An audience member for Sunday’s edition of Question Time summed it up perfectly:
“I have found the campaigns very confusing. I don’t think either side has made a very good point. I’m an educated young woman and I don’t know how I’m going to vote. I think both sides ought to feel a little bit ashamed of how they have behaved to this nation.”
Britain’s place in Europe is an important issue that demands a well-observed, honest exchange of ideas and information. What we got instead was an absolute car crash that never should have taken place to begin with.
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