The anticipation is immense. The suspense is spellbinding. Although it is conventional to look down upon democracy as being dry and rather stuffy – a quintessentially secular phenomenon – when you are suddenly up close to its ticking mechanism, you realise that it is profoundly aesthetic. The mystery of all previous faiths, the capering with goats at sacrificial altars, the haggling for God’s grace at that door which appears over every dying man’s bed, seems to be on a miniature, homemade scale when compared to the inscrutability of millions of people as they act out their vast, majestic democratic rituals.
The power of the people resides in their inscrutability. Afterwards, once the suspense is ended, this aesthetic becomes instantly forgettable, or at least until the next time. For now, however, the markets are in anguish, the polls are trying to hopelessly tickle a clue out of the people, and time stands still. To quote GK Chesterton’s Father Brown, “How can I guess all their mazes down below?”
A week ago and the EU looked like it was being subjected to a force which it has spent much of its existence conspiring to avoid: the alert interest of the masses. The chameleon had been surprised against a clashing background. As the EU plunged in the polls, the Chancellor George Osborne set out a panicky budget which was intended to avenge the EU in the event of it losing. The parliamentary support for this budget crumpled within hours. Osborne’s garbled message was, “vote Remain to save the economy otherwise we’ll close down your local hospital.” The government’s anchor had slipped; the Leave side was ahead by ten points in one poll. To borrow terminology which is usually used to describe the Third World, pro-democracy campaigners were jubilant and regime loyalists were dismayed.
Perhaps the extent of this shock can be overstated. The Spectator’s Anthony Wells discerned a pattern in the Scottish referendum in which there was “a long period of little movement when most ordinary voters were paying little attention… followed by a period of movement in favour of Yes, as people were excited by the prospect of change, followed by a sharp correction back to the status quo as, in the final days, people worried about the risks associated with it.” He thinks that the current referendum will pan out the same. The public, in their twinkling inscrutability, have nonetheless failed to divulge two important clues. Are they really so disengaged that they have only started paying attention over the last week, or are they not yet so engaged that all of the presumed Remain vote will turn out?
The chief virtue of the EU referendum is that one can vote indiscriminately against the entire political status quo. At each election it becomes harder to find somebody to vote for. You assume that there must be some party, however small and however mad, which is detectably superior to the others. Alas, in this year’s Holyrood election, there wasn’t. The four parties which were standing in my constituency were all equally dreadful and, for the first time in my eligible possession of the vote, I didn’t use it. Now though, the leadership of every mainstream political party is lined up in one designated place. It is possible to punish all of them in one go.
The increasingly uproarious atmosphere of the referendum debate came to an abrupt stop last week when the talented Labour MP Jo Cox was senselessly murdered in the streets of her constituency. The consequent grief and distress across the political spectrum were obviously sincere, and yet an untoward symbolism was, no doubt inevitably, imposed upon her death. It might have even simply settled upon it. The voters were becoming noisily disrespectful towards their politicians. If only there was something to hand which could helpfully convey this. Articles by Polly Toynbee for the Guardian, and Alex Massie for the Spectator, imagined the man charged with her murder, Thomas Mair, to be the pure embodiment of a passion which the referendum had “unleashed” in every human breast. We were all, it seemed, Thomas Mair, in a diabolically inverted “Je Suis” way.
Would anything less redolent have muted the Brexit clamour? The swing for Remain might have been conceivably more pronounced had the MP never been murdered. A disastrously racist poster, which appeared complete with Nigel Farage standing in front of it, escaped full public opprobrium in the aftermath of Cox’s death. It was one of those many moments when you wonder whether Farage is being paid by British intelligence to discredit the Leave campaign. It is a pity that Vote Leave cannot court-martial him. The poster had emerged from Farage’s customary calculation that if you say crass and repulsive things, this will somehow give you an authentic connection to the working class. Make no mistake: this is just as snobbish as the Remain camp’s wild fears that the UK will be ruined if democracy is restored and ordinary people can vote about immigration policy again.
The story rolls constantly on, and Farage’s wretched contribution will be hopefully lost amongst most people’s jumbled campaign memories. Part of the hilarity of this referendum lies in the panic of the capitalists. Many lofty and supremely independent experts have come out over the last few months to predict economic disaster if there is a Brexit. Unfortunately, none of these people, whether at the Bank of England or the Institute for Fiscal Studies, were able to predict that the polls would swing over to the Leave side. It has rapidly dawned on them that their outlandish predictions might come under scrutiny one day if there is actually a Brexit.
What will the bankers do now? It is presently in the direct interests of the cream of British capitalism to crash the economy, to save all of their reputations as experts about capitalism!
However expert these predictions, they express a basic absence of logical thinking. If the nation-states of the EU decided to punish us by imposing tariffs, in response to a democratic decision, then they would have shown that they are strangers to our own democratic values. So how had we come to be allies with such nations in the first place? Moreover, if the establishment’s finest economic minds are arguing that European capitalists would be unable to organise free trade after a Brexit, then they seem to have inadvertently confirmed that capitalism is too delicate to survive as a viable economic system. In their merciless picture of capitalism’s inadequacies, the Institute for Fiscal Studies is making a surer case for communism than Yanis Varoufakis ever did.
Finally, I am obliged to contemplate how my own Euroscepticism can die peacefully and with dignity. The weeks and months after the Scottish referendum were far from pretty, as Scottish nationalists vowed to accept the result only temporarily, or raged against the unadventurous voters, or schemed about how to whirl Scotland back through time into referendum fervour again, or clung on to supporting the SNP government and its illiberal policies out of a congealed patriotism. I really do not want to find myself stuck in any of these unhappy places.
There is a big difference between devoting your heart to a nation’s independence and campaigning for democracy. The latter is purer, without any cultural fluff clogging it up, and it is simultaneously more pragmatic. You can bargain for democracy without end because the price is forever rising and falling. If there is a vote to Remain, Tychy will switch immediately to campaigning for more democracy within the EU. I have no faith in Jeremy Corbyn’s assessment that this is possible. I would rather campaign for ordinary people to support socialism in independent UK elections than I would for a remote elite to mend their undemocratic ways. If the map is redrawn by a democratic majority, however, then Corbyn’s road will be the only one available. There can be no turning back.
Following a Leave vote, the UK would become a genuine mass participatory democracy, with laws which can be made and unmade according to the popular will. This, for me, is much more of an honest adventure. But if we remain, democratic legitimacy would have been still belatedly conferred upon the EU. Whatever happens in this referendum, a democrat cannot be disappointed.