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Iraq, Cruise Missiles, and Brexit

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sat, June 11, 2016 18:46:45

I have a week to make up my mind what to do with my EU Referendum voting slip (I have a postal vote because I will be out of the country (rather ironically in Germany) on the day of the vote.

Certainty continues to elude me, because it seems to me that so many issues and currents are tangled up in this. It depends on which issues you put in the mix, the weight you give to each one. And the more I think about it, the messier it becomes!

The fact that I am not certain when so many around me are certain is surprising to me. Only yesterday one of my thoughtful friends, someone whose views I deeply respect, told me that if Britain left the EU he did not see how he could continue to live in the UK. That is just one manifestation of the strength of feeling that I see around me. I need to understand why I don’t feel so strongly, and whether this is a profound mistake on my part. This in turn has led me to look back at my political past, and review the situations in which I DID have certainty, to see if I can learn from them.

No-one who knows me will be surprised that the issues which have stirred me most deeply have been issues of war and peace.

In 1981 I joined CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and for the next 10 years campaigned for the removal of US Cruise Missiles from British soil. I was 100% certain that this was the right thing to do. From 1999 to 2003 I campaigned against Tony Blair’s wars, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, and, above all – in Iraq. I was 100% certain that Britain should have been involved in none of them.

The issue which went to my political core was Iraq. Indeed, it was in the early weeks after the invasion that I felt so disgusted with my country that I was the one telling my friends that I wanted to live in another country. Quite fortuitously, I had planned a sabbatical term in Montreal, Canada in the Autumn of 2003. Arriving there was such a relief, and I can recall very strongly how I dreaded the time I would have to return to the UK, although in the end return I did.

Why did Iraq generate these feelings in me when the nuclear weapons issue did not?

I think the issue is this. In the 1980s, being against nuclear weapons was a minority view among the electorate. Even at its height, CND’s position never captured more than 30% of public opinion (as demonstrated repeatedly through well-conducted polls). Parliament more or less represented the spread of views in the population, with the majority in most parties supporting the cruise missiles. Representative democracy, as much as I disagreed with its conclusions, was functioning in some fashion.

In the decision to invade Iraq, as David Beetham argued at the time representative democracy totally broke down (D. Beetham, ‘Political participation, mass protest and representative democracy’.Parliamentary Affairs, 2003, vol. 56, pp. 597-609).

The majority of the electorate were against the Iraq War, as demonstrated consistently in polls over a substantial period of time (to say nothing of the massive anti-war demonstrations), yet Parliament was almost monolithically for the invasion. It was the pain of knowing that our elected representatives had preferred to follow the dictates of a foreign president than their own people which made me, at least temporarily, give up on Britain, at an deep and emotional level.

In the case of the EU debate, representative democracy is, again, functioning (sort of). The electorate is split on the issue, and so is parliament, and this is represented in the business community and the media too. In fact the split is far more even than in the case of the cruise missiles, where there was never a moment when the anti-nuclear camp came anywhere near 50%. The Brexit debate has split the country down the middle, with the “leavers” and “remainers” both teetering around 50%.

After my moment of revulsion with the UK over Iraq, I remember deciding that helping Britain clean up its mess was best done from within the UK. My attention, and that of many others with whom I joined in common cause, turned to the consequences of the invasion, and finding ways of putting right the wrongs committed, and avoiding committing further ones.

And I guess that is where my attention already is when it comes to the EU – the aftermath of the vote. Whichever way the vote goes, Britain faces huge – possibly insoluble – problems. If we vote to remain, we leave a whole swathe of the most disenchanted in our society – concentrated in the regions away from the prosperous south - bitter and disillusioned, and even more prey to varieties of extremism. They are not going to suddenly smile and say everything is ok. If we vote to leave, we face seismic constitutional issues, including the possibility of the breakup of the Union, with Scotland being the first to rush for secession, to say nothing of the ripple effect across the EU.

In that sense, which way I cast my vote hardly matters, because we know the vote will disenfranchise around half the electorate whichever way it goes. I am thinking of what we will all think, feel, say, and do on 25th June and beyond. How will we move on as a split country on this matter? And I am not really hearing any clear plan, from either side.

So while I continue to struggle for enlightenment, my voting slip sits on my desk, unmarked, envelope unsealed.

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