Fans of the film Pulp Fiction will recall the moment that, as two hitmen ponder how to dispose of a decapitated body and a severed head with pools of blood everywhere, the doorbell rings. “Hi, I’m Winston Wolfe,” says Harvey Keitel. “I fix problems.” In a similar spirit, President Reagan’s chief of staff Donald Regan used to refer to himself as “the shovel brigade that follows a parade down Main Street”, cleaning up the mess.
Where is our Winston Wolfe today? Who will act as the shovel brigade in the case of the EU referendum?
The past few months have shown that the referendum is the most perfect system ever devised for covering politicians of every stripe in ordure. Personal insults have proliferated as both sides have resorted to ad-hominem attacks, either intentionally or in careless disregard of the media’s interest in stirring up controversy.
Neither campaign has shown any great scrupulousness in arguing its case, as the Treasury committee made clear last week. The outers continue to use “£350m a week”, for instance, as though that were the net cost of the EU, when the true figure is more like half of that, once the money the UK gets back or never actually pays is deducted. Many outers simply refuse to recognise the almost inevitable short-term economic costs that Brexit would incur, the uncertainty as to what terms the UK could then negotiate with the EU, and the likelihood of an adverse reaction from continental politicians who see the “EU project” as their life’s work, and would want to discourage other countries from leaving.
If anything, however, the remainers are even more at fault, since they have the full backing and responsibilities of the government behind them. If Brexit is really so disastrous, why have a referendum in the first place? Would the government really have argued for Britain to leave if the February agreement had yielded not a little, but nothing at all? How can it be right for the state to put its finger on the scales by spending public money on April’s pro-EU information leaflet? Or to prevent ministers campaigning for the leave campaign from seeing EU-related official departmental papers?
The issue of immigration is a particular source of misinformation. The government leaflet artfully skates around the question of whether it will be able to control immigration if the UK remains in, even as the Office for National Statistics has revealed the second highest net migration levels on record. At the same time, many outers have refused to recognise that access to the EU single market will be desirable in case of Brexit, but would require free movement of people.
Nor have our great institutions been unaffected. The governor of the Bank of England has struggled to explain why he felt able to opine on policy effects on inflation in the context of the referendum debate, when he would never do so during a general election. The Financial Times described the latest Treasury report on Brexit as plausible but biased, with assumptions chosen to show lost jobs, a recession and falling house prices.
Politics is not pretty at the best of times, and one shouldn’t be dewy-eyed about its compromises. Still, it would be nice to think that all this squabbling will calm down during the final few weeks of the purdah period. But it’s far more likely that as tempers fray further and the heat of conflict rises, so the shouting and insults and dishonesties large and small will escalate. Nothing good can come of this.
Referendums are not acts of representative government. Every vote is private. There are no MPs, no political parties and no prime ministers (indirectly) to vote for. They are one-off events whose impact runs for at least a generation. There are huge questions of economic growth and national identity at stake. And a bad decision cannot be improved only a few years later by voting the other way.
For referendums especially, then, there is an overwhelming need to have arguments for the undecided, not anoraks, and sources of unbiased information and impartial advice that allow people to make informed choices on their own terms.
That’s why, although I decided on my personal view long ago, I have refused to make a public declaration either way. Instead I have spoken to hundreds of voters, sent thousands of emails, disseminated vast amounts of information, written widely and led an open public debate in my constituency.
The public reaction has been incredibly positive – and telling. As one person wrote: “Too many politicians have been giving us their views far too stridently and with increasing damage to their collective credibility.” It needs to be said again and again: the British people are not stupid, they are perfectly capable of assessing complex, nuanced arguments, and they do not deserve to be treated like children.
Whatever the final outcome, the shrillness of the present debate is certain to fuel voter disillusionment and reduce public trust still further, something Britain can ill afford given the rise in populist identity politics. And its apparent personal bitterness threatens to split the Conservative party, at a time when the government is already struggling to push legislation through parliament. If out wins, all bets are surely off. But if in triumphs, the risk is of years of internal party dispute, and political stasis. Winston Wolfe, we need you now.