TAKE BACK CONTROL. TAKE BACK CONTROL. TAKE BACK CONTROL. This was the incantation that echoed with Dalek-like monotonous hysteria from the Brexit side, inside Wembley Arena during the big EU Referendum debate. I kept an informal running tally, by scratching lines in the margin of my pad. One hundred and twelve times Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom managed between them.
If a politician is asked a question and all he or she can offer back is a slogan, legitimate concerns arise. How will you deal with the fall of pound sterling? TAKE BACK CONTROL. How many jobs will be lost in the short and medium term? TAKE BACK CONTROL. How will you reduce immigration? TAKE BACK CONTROL. Do you plan to be in the Single Market or not? TAKE BACK CONTROL. The crowd cheered enthusiastically: here
But how is it “taking back control” to hand a blank cheque to demagogues who have no plan for the country? How is it “taking back control” to feed the ugliest xenophobia of the ultra right who will see a vote for Brexit as moral validation? How is it “taking back control” to purposefully plunge your own country into financial turmoil and break a decades-old peace pact, at the most globally turbulent time? How is it “taking back control” to walk off a bridge, without even looking down?
And why is a vote to Remain in the European Union, to avoid all of this, any less empowering?
The Vote Leave campaign became aware very early on that they had lost the economic argument. Not because of some conspiracy. Because the facts were not on their side. If they argued that they would stay in the Single Market, it was pointed out that this necessitates accepting the paying of fees, the free movement of people, and compliance with regulation. If they argued that they would be outside, it was pointed out the economic effect would be catastrophic. There wasn’t even a serious debate on the catastrophy – just the size and length of it.
They devised a strategy of simply creating as much noise as possible. Boris was perfect for this. The master of it. They attacked knowledge and expertise as if they were some sort of elitist pursuit, like polo. They made up facts and plastered them on buses. They heckled. So that, by the end, reasoned argument was drowned out. This suited the Brexit campaign just fine. If they couldn’t find credible people to argue their side, they would instead discredit everyone.
Meanwhile, the fires of xenophobia were being stoked. If the carrot was in short supply, the stick was ample. The impression was created that the UK was under some sort of occupation, some tyrranical yoke, and people had to fight for their freedom, for their sovereignty. “I want my country back!” From whom and for whom didn’t seem to matter.
But the murder of Jo Cox created a big problem for the leaders of Brexit. Campaigning was called off “as a mark of respect”, but really to regroup. Disgusting posters reminiscent of Nazi propaganda, unfurled amidst much fanfare a few hours earlier, were quickly rolled up. The rhetoric of fear and divisiveness had to be doused down – not because it was the right thing to have done right from the start, but because “it wouldn’t play well”.
Step forward Boris once again. He was so close to Number 10 now, he would not fall at the final hurdle. “Take back control” was zeroed in on – a toned down version of the jingoism and fear sown in the previous few months, but formulated positively. A hollow, tin drum that makes a lot of noise, but means nothing. “Take back control.”
The truth is, of course, much more banal. Control is always limited at country level and virtually non-existent at personal political level. And nobody was taking it away.
We entered this pact with our neighbours freely and have done extremely well out of it. “Ever closer union” is not some concept sprung on the UK by stealth. It is contained in the very first paragraph of the very first treaty signed in Rome in 1957, which is preambled as an agreement between nations “determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”. This is what we signed up to from the very start.
The fact that we are having this debate and this referendum, proves beyond any doubt that we are still sovereign, free to walk away from the deal whenever we want. No European army has marched in our streets to stop the vote. Wembley Arena was not bombed by Brussels during the debate. The question is: should we walk away.
There is nothing revolutionary about making the wrong choice, just because you can. There is nothing revolutionary about the logic of “I need to kick something; this is something, therefore I need to kick it”.
Unelected officials participate at every level of government in every democracy. They are not only necessary – they are essential. Technocrats make the world go round – not politicians. And that is as it should be. The majority of politicians are dangerous careerists who have only a passing acquaintance with their brief. There, I said it.
There is no argument, that the balance between expertise and accountability is entirely wrong at the moment. But this is not exclusive to the European level and not exclusive to the unelected part of our democracy. It is endemic. What sort of strategy is it to admit we failed at this level of democracy, so we will withdraw to the one below and hope it sorts itself?
We live in a country with a Monarch, a House of Lords, a civil service, judges, Director Generals, Agencies, Quangos, Tsars. Ministers are appointed and on many occasions are not MPs. We have a legislature that, because of the party whipping system, is effectively hostage to our Executive. We have an electoral system which means that, with the exception of a few marginals, you may as well not bother voting.
Take back control from whom and give it to whom? Take back control from the European Court, from the Commission, from the European Parliament, from the Council of Ministers and give it all to a man so cynically ambitious, so unscrupulously jaded, that he changed his allegiance from pro-EU to anti-EU two months ago, just to get the keys to the top office?
Is that what “taking back control” looks like? Not to me.
Taking control is more than putting a cross in a box and expecting to be instantly transported to Shangri La. Taking control is about organising at the local level, volunteering for charities, standing for what you believe in, changing consensus, forcing the EU to democratise, campaigning for House of Lords reform, fighting for Syrian refugees, campaigning for proportional representations, standing up to bullies, effecting change one exhausting battle at a time. Voting for your MEPs, voting for your Police Commissioners, voting for your local council. Jo Cox understood this.
Not clicking your heels together and wishing. Not being in denial. Not believing in Bogeymen. Not blaming anyone who doesn’t look like you. Not handing control from one group of crooks, to another, significantly more unhinged group of crooks. All those things are the opposite of “taking back control”.
Taking back control is about taking responsibility, individually and collectively, for where we find ourselves today and fighting against what we dislike about it. It is about changing the big picture one bit at a time. To do that, we have to be rational, kind, brave, persistent and active participants in our structures, from local to European level.
Take back control from the demagogues who would burn this country down, if they could be in charge of the ashes. Vote Remain.