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Brexit – a floating voter’s lament

September 25, 2018

The Raft of the Medusa, Theodore Gericault 1818-1819

In the United States, if you despise your current president, the things he says, the way he behaves, his contempt for the rule of law and his personal amorality, there’s only one explanation for your view. You’re a Democrat. A member of the other tribe. It seems impossible for all but a few in Trumpland to be politically unaligned. Everybody has an agenda.

In the United Kingdom, we’re in a slightly different position. We don’t have a person like Trump on whom to project our animus or our undying devotion. Our politicians are like mice swimming in a flash flood. But we do have Brexit. If we support it, we can’t be labelled filthy Tory reactionaries because there are supporters in the Labour Party too. If we oppose it, we can’t automatically be called rabid lefties, because a number of Conservatives oppose it too.

The only way politicians and the media can easily define a person’s view on our membership of the European Union is to use the tame labels of Brexiteer or Remoaner. It’s almost as if there’s a parallel universe in which there is no Labour, no Conservatives, only Brexiteers and Remoaners.

The shorthand for this with-us-or-against-us, black-and-white political culture is polarisation. Except in Britain it’s a dual polarisation – normal party politics and Brexit. Almost as if two magnets are laid across each other at 90 degrees.

But the essence of politics is that there are large numbers of voters who don’t sit at any of the four poles. Some are too busy earning a living or struggling to make ends meet to care about politics. When they vote, if they vote, they’re motivated solely by what’s in it for them, or what they believe is in it for them.

Others care very much about issues beyond their immediate lives. But the things they care about are not adequately addressed as a package by any political party. So they go from election to election without preconceived political affiliation, and vote for the party that comes closest to reflecting their views.

Since we must have labels, the two groups are thrown into the condescending category of floating voters. Wishy-washy. The undecided.

The same goes for Brexit. Many people who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 did so on the basis of a simple choice. Now, confronted by the complexity of the issues and the possibility of catastrophic consequences, some – enough perhaps to reverse the decision – have changed their minds. Others, appalled by what they’re encouraged to believe is bullying and disrespectful behaviour on the part of the European Union, have gone the other way. The will of the people is a tenuous illusion, expressed once, but not for eternity.

The difference between Brexit and normal policy decisions endorsed by electors and enacted by governments is that governments can be voted out and, in most cases, policies reversed. Brexit, once enacted, cannot easily be reversed. So it seems that we’ve already pressed the delete button, and there’s no helpful little message that comes up on your computer when you’re about to erase a bunch of files that asks you “are you sure?”.  No way to fly back up the cliff once you’ve jumped. No room for voters to float on this one.

I believe that floating voters are an indicator of a country’s political and social health, provided that the reason for their non-alignment is engagement, not apathy. The more there are, the healthier we are. As the historian Tom Holland said in a recent tweet:

As far as party politics is concerned I’m one of them. And when I watch politicians of all persuasions peddle their ideologies, talk about movements and forget that most governments succeed by pragmatism laced with vision that changes as situations change, I can’t help feeling disillusioned about the present and near-term future.

It may be that a new centre party would provide a shot in the arm of a tired political system. Such a party might energise voters in large numbers and make a difference in moderating the extremes of left and right. But sooner or later it would ossify. Its representatives would, as is the case with many of the current politicians, start considering career and power above principles. And then it would become just another party. No better and no worse than the current lot.

Perhaps we actually need a catastrophe that shakes us up, even if it wrecks the lives of many of us. Maybe catastrophe is too extreme a word. After all, a no-deal Brexit is unlikely to kill us. But I’m pretty convinced by predictions of adverse consequences. I can, nonetheless, see a silver lining. It would likely produce sufficient disappointment, translated into discontent, that the current generation of senior politicians would be lucky to survive.

Would they be replaced by analogues of Victor Orban, Matteo Salvini and the other populist leaders rising to prominence across the EU? Would the polarisation continue? Quite possibly, especially as adversity often generates extremism.

I would prefer not to see my country governed by a bunch of fanatical ideologues, be they from the left or right. Creative destruction, whether its author is Steve Bannon or John McDonnell, leaves too many casualties in its wake. As I have written before, my preferred option would be for us to stay in the EU, work within it to address its obvious flaws, and make contingency plans such that if we choose to leave in ten years’ time we are properly prepared and make the decision with the best possible understanding of the consequences.

By that time most of today’s political leaders will be in the long grass, and perhaps their successors will have the imagination and talent to move us into a different place, if that is what we choose, without leaving us friendless across our borders.

Given the huge implications of the journey we are currently embarked upon, whose consequences will be felt for decades, is it too much to ask that we take a leaf out of the computer’s book, and ask the simple question “are you sure?”?

Neither of the major parties seems amenable to asking that question. So if the option to remain is no longer available to us, and the dire predictions of life after Brexit come true, whichever party is in power after the debacle runs an equal risk of being blamed, and possibly destroyed in the process. And it will be down to us, the floating voters, to deliver the coup de grace.

From → Politics, UK, USA

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