Never has so much been risked for so little.
It’s a sentence which reflects how I and many others view Britain’s current EU referendum. The stakes are so high – but the level of informed debate has been so low. It’s a toxic cocktail.
I’m not sure how it looks from outside the UK, but the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU has been thoroughly depressing – on both sides. And for progressives, it has been truly frightening.
This is a referendum the Conservative government did not want. It was devised for two things: to deal with the rise of an insurgent hard-right UK Independence Party – and secondly, to deal with a correspondingly noisy and vociferous right wing of the Conservative party.
It was a referendum initially rejected by the Labour Party, but then reluctantly backed when it was inevitable. But it was a referendum always backed by the Greens – to settle a crucial constitutional issue for good.
While I thought it was right at the time, I’m now beginning to think this may have been a mistake. We weren’t to know just how low the campaign would descend – it was a chance for progressivism to smash anti-immigrant rhetoric once and for all. But it has, sadly, had the opposite impact.
The Greens have brought up crucial issues through their Greens for Europe campaign – an essential but much-ignored voice. But even then, Greens have often apologised for the EU before speaking up for it. Often we have sounded like only very reluctant Remainers – something compounded by Green Baroness Jenny Jones loudly speaking up for ‘Lexit’ – the fantasy land of some kind of ‘left-wing exit’ from the EU.
This has been a campaign dominated by two issues: the economy, and immigration. Over the past few weeks, immigration has overtaken the economy as the most discussed issue. Issues that young people care about – including the environment, inequality and housing – have barely registered.
In fact, according to the think tank CoVi (Common Vision), between the 23 March and 23 May, just a dozen EU headlines appeared in the main media outlets relating to the environment. Immigration garnered over 100, the economy 250. I imagine immigration has now almost caught up.
But the economic viewpoint from the Remain camp has not been about decent wages, low prices or opportunities for young people. It has been about GDP, inflation, interest rates and financial services. It’s no wonder people have switched off. On both sides, we have been left with dire warnings about the risks to staying in or leaving – rather than any uplifting, inspiring visions for our future in or out of the EU.
For every positive word in a headline, there have been at least two – and often three (Telegraph), four (Buzzfeed) or five (Mail Online) negative words when talking about the EU. This is arguably partly reflective of the treatment by the (largely Eurosceptic) press of this referendum as a de facto Conservative leadership election hustings, but more-so of what the official camps are putting out in terms of their messaging.
The almost-universal negativity on both sides – and a (perhaps understandable) refusal by the official/mainstream ‘In’ campaign (Britain Stronger in Europe) to challenge the anti-immigrant rhetoric and speak up for freedom of movement, has meant what began badly soon became outright xenophobic and malicious.
Last week, I believe we began to see what it looks like when so much rage and hatred is stirred up.
On the day when UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, launched a poster campaign which said: ‘Breaking Point’ – with the image simply being a faceless mass of refugees (incidentally, not refugees who were coming into Britain), a man with links to white fascist groups brutally murdered a (pro-EU) Labour MP, Jo Cox, outside her constituency surgery – where Members of Parliament meet constituents to help them with their problems. He is alleged to have shouted ‘Britain First’ – the name of a prominent far-right organisation.
The campaigns both suspended activity Thursday until Monday. It has meant that they now say they will focus on positivity, rather than stirring up fear – a welcome shift, if stuck to. It is horrifying that it took the murder of an MP for that to happen.
There are just a few days to go before Brits vote on our role in the continent. The Greens – through Greens for Europe and the broad, left-wing ‘In’ campaign Another Europe is Possible, have played a positive role in a referendum few wanted, and which has not particularly sunk through to the public in a meaningful way (just 22% of people say they feel well-informed).
The polls are incredibly tight – they are neck and neck. We can only hope that in this last few days, hope truly does win over fear.
As Greens, and as compassionate young people, we just have to make sure that on our side, we show this campaign to be what it really is – a battle between a progressive, positive internationalist vision of unity and cooperation, and its opposite.
Josiah Mortimer is a writer and Green Party member based in London. Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/josiahmortimer