A recurrent theme in the Remain campaign particularly is to identify politicians involved in the Leave campaign and create sneering memes that invite the reader to consider what the country might look like were these individuals to be in charge.
Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage in particular come in for a good deal of this nonsense. The clear inference is that, following a win for Leave, these three would be in charge of running the country. Never mind the fact that we are not voting to elect Boris, Michael or Nigel.
This line not only insults the intelligence of British voters, it debases the real importance of the referendum. We are not being asked to decide whether or not Boris should get the keys to No.10.
We are being asked to decide how much power is, or is not, wielded from that famous address. And we are being asked whether we want that power to be accountable to us, the voters.
We are not being asked this routinely, as in a general election, with an opportunity to change our minds in five years’ time. Whatever we decide will be it, for good.
We won’t get asked again.
It has been 40 years since the last referendum on EU membership. Based on the rate of acceleration toward EU federalism over those four decades (and assuming the EU does not succumb to the greatest likelihood and implode in some horrific economic catastrophe in the next four) it is reasonable to conclude that we would not have enough of a home-grown government left by 2056 to call a referendum on EU membership, let alone govern following a vote to leave.
So make no mistake, this is our last chance to change direction. And what we are being asked to decide is far, far too important to be determined on the basis of whether you think Nigel Farage speaks sense, or whether you find it sad that a young MP was recently murdered by a mentally-ill extremist. Or indeed on whether you think Boris Johnson would make a good Prime Minister.
What we are being asked to vote on is how much power our politicians are able to wield. Whether our politicians are ‘allowed’ to tighten or loosen the country’s immigration policy. Whether they are ‘allowed’ to nationalise or privatise an industry. Whether they are ‘allowed’ to give aid to strategically important national industries when faced with dumping practices from producers overseas.
And we are being asked to determine how accountable our politicians should be to us. In the event that our representatives do something that displeases us, should we be able to vote them out? Should we be able to hold this power over our leaders, to ensure they are sensitive to public backlash against unpopular policies? It is difficult to imagine the unelected Eur0pean Commission responding so flexibly to public outcry over forced academisation in schools, say, or tax credits cuts.
Whether you think these were the right Government decisions or not, one cannot deny that they demonstrate a sensitivity by elected politicians to the likely impact of forcing through truly unpopular measures, within a system that can see the executive voted out by the people they govern. Where the executive comprises individuals appointed, not directly elected, there is no equivalent incentive to pay much attention to the people at all.
So, then, this is not a vote on who governs us, but how we are governed: should our politicians be subject to supranational restraints in the policies they are permitted to promise to the electorate? And how much influence do we, the wider electorate, wish to retain over the politicians who take up roles within our system of government?
Seen in that light, the puerile jibes about a vote for Brexit being ‘for le Pen’ or ‘for Geert Wilders’ or such bilge are also revealed for the half-arguments they truly are. Yes, there are politicians with stronger, less centrist views – on the left as well as the right – who strongly support our departure from the EU. There is a good reason for this, and it is not that Brexit is somehow inherently right-wing. No, it is because to depart the EU is to end the stifling, EU-imposed centrist consensus in favour of politicians who are genuinely empowered to make meaningful policy promises and then enact them. And this goes for the left as well as the right. The only way that this can be seen as frightening, dangerous or regressive is if you consider the will of the people itself to be frightening, dangerous and regressive.
If you are sick of supposedly opposing political parties trotting out the same set of minute variations on broadly identical policies; if you have had enough of a political class that increasingly seeks to insulate itself from pushback by the people it supposedly represents; if you have faith in electorates to engage in and make good decisions, together, for our country. If, in a nutshell, you believe in the democratic project, there is only one choice. We must not allow those who would keep us muzzled and docile to pretend this vote is reducible to X-Factor-like voting on the basis of cartoon personalities. It is far more important than that: it is our last chance to turn the ship away from bread and circuses, towards democracy. We must take it, and vote Leave.