Let's start with the basics: I still think Brexit is unlikely to be the economic end of the world, and I still think Brexit is unlikely to deliver any of the things Britain really wants. For that analysis, written when I was in a somewhat less grim mood, see my Politics Special: Brexit.
Now, on to the Tragedy of Incompetent Leadership in the UK.
Act 1: Incompetent NegotiationIn the UK, everyone will tell you that the EU is resistant to reform, a juggernaut, laden down with inertia, unable to change. There is an element of truth in this: the EU does operate on a slower timescale than most national governments. But that is a very different beast from "impossible to reform"
When David Cameron was elected for a second term with an outright majority, he had to deliver on his promise of a referendum. Here's his phenomenally obvious strategic mistake: he promised to negotiate with the EU first, and then hold a referendum.
What utter idiocy.
Think yourself into the shoes of other European leaders for a moment. Imagine negotiating with the promise of a referendum in the future. Cameron's intent is pretty clear: he wanted to put the EU in crisis mode, to get it to come to agreements as quickly as it did for bailouts. However, the difference is that the bailouts were negotiated precisely to ensure a (supposedly) guaranteed outcome of retained EU membership. You can't negotiate when the outcome on your side of the table is a big fat "maybe". That's like trying to sell a car and telling the buyer "pay me, and maybe you will get this car". It's a terrible negotiation strategy (unless you happen to be the lottery, in which case your argument is "pay me a tiny pittance and maybe you will get this fortune". No wonder the EU offered Cameron tiddlywinks)
What should he have done? Run the referendum as soon as legally possible after the election, on a premise of reforming the EU if "Remain" wins (and hinting that a second referendum towards the end of the next Parliament would be on the cards if he got re-elected for a third term, thereby giving himself several years to reform the EU)
If "Remain" had won, then this would have enabled him to negotiate with the EU on much stronger legs: he could have shown the evidence of all the "Leave" votes as a shot across the EU's bow, requiring genuine and deep-reaching reform. He would have had realistic timescales to negotiate meaningful reform, and this would have been his central political objective for his term in office.
Act 2: Incompetent DefinitionsThe Referendum campaigns have been absolutely abysmal. Lies, dishonesty, hyperbole, spin, distortions, publicity stunts... I cannot recall ever witnessing as shameful a farce in a functional democracy as the debacle we have been living through these past few months.
One of the key reasons for all this farce is that Cameron has chosen, quite intentionally, to leave "Leave" a blank slate. The only thing he has stated is that a referendum would be....
a) binding (i.e. no re-negotiating with the EU and no re-referending)
b) resulting in invoking Article 50 & exit from EU.
The strategy, presumably, is to paint "Leave" as a dangerous leap into uncertainty. What a colossal miscalculation. Of course "Leave" is fraught with uncertainty, but the electorate can see through his scheming, and no one is impressed at feeling manipulated by dodgy Dave.
Here's what he should have done: he should have set out a scenario for "Leave". That scenario should have been explicit and clear. Namely, he should have stated outright that his post-referendum strategy would be for the UK to remain in the EEA / EFTA but exit the EU, as a first step on a potential journey of distancing.
Why? Because this would have allowed a debate framed by some semblance of clarity. Sure, there would have been arguments that "maybe we'll kick Cameron out and put in place a new government" or similar, but at least the electorate would have an ability to make an informed decision.
The point of not defining what a "Leave" outcome would entail is to prevent informed decision-making. What wonder is it that, lacking information and clarity, the resulting public discourse has turned into a farce filled with so many lies that even experienced politicians are sick of it?
Act 3: Incompetent Argumentation
Two words: CAMP FEAR.
Plus, letting the referendum descend into a "Tory Game of Thrones" which only serves to convince the electorate that NONE of the f***ers currently in government can be trusted with so much as the responsibility over managing a lemonade stall, let alone a country.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the House, the entire debate is being framed as "if we leave, we'll get extra ultra Tory policies!!!" and "don't trust those toffs!!!" which is hardly likely to win the debate considering that the electorate actually ELECTED those same Tory toffs.
Due to the fundamental mistake of Act 1 (see above), we're now in a situation where "Vote Remain" is a vote for a status quo no one is particularly excited about, with nothing much to promise, while, thanks to the huge mistake in Act 2, "Vote Leave" is a vote for a change that is so vague that no one can really know what it would mean. Therefore, while Cameron & Co threaten everything they can think of, the Leave Campaign can promise everything, too.
Dear Cameron, a hint: remember how Obama won? It was on a platform of "change". Noticed how Trump got to be the Republican candidate? It was on a platform of "change". What on earth made you think that framing the other side of the debate as blanket "change" would be a good idea?!?
Act -1 (Prelude): Failing to Meet Promises
The number one promise that the Tories have broken is, of course, the reduction of net migration. I happen to be an immigrant and a big fan of free movement, so I can't say I'm heartbroken over that failure. However, despite what they may claim, they could have done something to deliver on that promise.
Here's the argument: Free Movement of People means that they cannot prevent people from anywhere in the EU to move to the UK. This is true.
Here's the counterargument: Actually, the Free Movement of People specifically states that any EU member state must treat EU citizens equally to its own citizens, which includes the right to move and reside etc. This sounds like it's the same, but it isn't. If the government wanted to reduce the flow of EU migrants, it could do so by creating a Catch 22 obstacle that any existing residents could meet easily, but which would be difficult for outsiders to overcome. While this means some inconvenience for the existing population, who would obviously be annoyed, if the feeling about immigration is that strong, it would enable the government to deliver on its promise to reduce net immigration.
Let's take an example. Imagine the UK introduced a UK Residency Identity Card (UKRIC). Imagine it also introduced a law that says landlords can only rent properties to people with a UKRIC card, and also imagine that you could only acquire a UKRIC card by providing evidence that you've been living in the UK for at least 6 months (or 12 months, or whichever threshold you want to set). The law could include some exceptions (student halls etc.), and undoubtedly there'd be loopholes, but it would clearly be an obstacle to moving to the UK. Incomers would have to choose whether to stay in a hotel, or with family / friends, or buy a house (of course, you could also make a UKRIC card a requirement to allow someone to buy a house...), or whether to come here to study. Would it stop EU immigration? Of course not. But it'd be a pretty big filter. It would reduce net immigration and go some way towards delivering on the Tory election manifesto promise.
Of course, there might be legal challenges to such a law, and who knows, it might even be deemed against EU rules. However, it takes about 5 years for any case to get to the EU courts, which would be enough to give the government some breathing room in terms of meeting its promises and the wishes of its electorate. It would also enable the government to negotiate about EU reforms in the meantime, from a very different position; one of having already reduced movement of people...
I'm not saying I would have liked such a policy. In fact, I would have been the first to decry it as vile and xenophobic. I'm just saying that Cameron could have implemented policies to reduce net immigration from Europe if he'd wanted to. Considering the UK government is being very creative with the custom-made obstacles it keeps introducing to naturalisation of residents who are already here, it's hard to believe they would not have had similarly creative ideas to obstruct people wishing to move here from elsewhere.
The reason I'm including this here is because this phenomenal failure of having made promises that they then did not deliver on, has completely wiped out any trust in this government on the far-right. They pandered to far right voters, and then they betrayed them.
[I really wish they hadn't pandered to the bigots and xenophobes to begin with... and this is something Labour are guilty of, too: there has been woefully little leadership and hardly any standing-by-one's-principles, with EU immigration being a popular scapegoat on both sides of the house.]
Act 4: Anger MismanagementThe mood in Britain has been darkening these past few years. When I moved here, in 1999, the British tabloid press was already significantly more xenophobic and bigoted than the German one. I hope the German one hasn't caught up, but walk past any British news stand these days, and it's impossible not to be affronted.
I imagine right wingers find the Guardian and the Mirror and the Socialist Worker as much an affront as I do the Daily Vile and The Sun and The Express. The key point here isn't the flavour of the politics, it's the dominance of opinion telling us what to think, and the popular tone of RAGE and FEAR and complete and utter poison. Newspapers are not really newspapers, they are, at best, Opinionpapers, and, at worst, OUTRAGEpapers.
So, David Cameron's first key incompetence is his lack of enthusiasm for press regulation and reform. His second key incompetence is to not insist on law enforcement. I'm actually in favour of free speech (even extreme free speech), but if there are laws banning hate speech, then it's deeply hypocritical to not apply them consistently. This isn't even about whether Islamist hate preachers should be treated the same as far right extremists (which they should), it's the staggering imbalance between the way Joe Public is treated compared to Celebrities and VunIPs. If some small town twerp makes hate speech and offensive comments on social media, he or she might find themselves arrested. Meanwhile, Katie Hopkins is writing the sort of stuff that would make Goebbels proud, but gets a free pass. No wonder small fry hatemongers feel hard done by.
Farage, just last month, saying violence on the streets is the "next step" pic.twitter.com/V7T27LWH8F— Richie McCormåck (@RichieMcCormack) June 16, 2016
Another thing which has been growing rapidly during Cameron's time in office is the popularity of a social media savvy, paranoid, fascist hate group...
PRESS RELEASE: Britain First to target Muslim elected officials in direct action campaign - https://t.co/sCrnQR39mT pic.twitter.com/x1457M5qEd— Britain First (@BritainFirst) May 24, 2016
Leaked: Cameron ‘knee-deep in conspiracy’ with big business to keep Britain in EU - https://t.co/MkyFMP4rsa pic.twitter.com/JyGqiEuRdX— Britain First (@BritainFirst) May 18, 2016
...but, though they've risen under Cameron's watch, he's done nothing at all to tackle the problem.
Over this background of constant toxicity comes the referendum, and the series of failures, backstabbings, campaign lies, fearmongering, propaganda etc during the campaign. It's a tornado of crap. Voters are not just suffering from referendum fatigue, they are actually getting very frustrated and in some cases quite anxious - whichever side they're on (or even if they're undecided).
A brief excursion into anecdote: I'm a political person and occasional activist. I happen to campaign for the human rights of Palestinians and for solidarity with them. The Israel/Palestine discourse is one of the most anger-filled, troll-rich ones you can find on the internet (or outside of it). So, when I found myself manning a Boycott HP / pro-Palestine stall in central Cardiff the other day, I was anxious and expected some blowback. Indeed, one woman walked past, telling us "I really don't agree with you", shaking her head. Another man with an opposing viewpoint stopped to spend half an hour discussing the topic with one of the people at the stall. Two other men expressed degrees of disagreements with our positions. In short: it was a more civilised and safe experience than I'd feared. Then, after spotting someone in a "Stronger In" T-shirt, I walked to the other end of town to a "Vote Remain" campaign stall. There, only two people were left after a couple of gruelling hours, which apparently included a deranged woman kicking their banner and counter-shouting abuse at speakers. I joined them for a bit, and another furious woman approached the stall, shouted abuse, and ultimately walked off shouting angrily to herself. The EU referendum campaigns have become more toxic than the Israel/Palestine one - that should tell you a lot! (I'd also walked past "Vote Leave" stalls in the city centre the week before: those seemed to be calm affairs featuring tea, biscuits and cheerful chats with passers-by without attracting any significant blowback).
What has David Cameron and his government done to address the rage and passion? Has he been calm and statesmanlike, or has he threatened economic collapse and war? Has he framed the debate to allow people to become informed, or has he intentionally created uncertainty to foster a culture of fear (which is now backfiring)? Has he conducted an honest campaign, or has he been as dishonest as Gove, Boris & Farage? Has he tried even remotely to stick to fair play, or has he tried to jump the campaigning queue with a brochure sent to UK households? (Incidentally, a brochure I have never received, so I have no idea what it says). Has he done anything, anything at all, to build up the public's trust in politicians and government?
Act 5: TragedyThis is not Cameron's fault. But unless he starts being a much more competent leader, it could just be the beginning of a slide into catastrophe.
Remembering Jo Cox, the Labour MP who campaigned tirelessly for refugees https://t.co/yV1dCzLMEk— The Independent (@Independent) June 17, 2016
Act 6: Catastrophe?
Now we come to the reason for this entire bloated blog post. In the aftermath of this week's devastating events, my mind has been ruminating. I don't believe the assassination of an MP by a terrorist was Cameron's fault. I wouldn't even blame his spectacular incompetence and mismanagement of the referendum.
However, it illustrated something which I had not previously fully realised. I knew that there is rage and distrust among Brexitters. I saw how the Brexit movement has attracted frustrated, unstable people, and amplified their frustration into rage. Even so, until this turned into a gruesome terrorist attack, it never occurred to me that we may be witnessing the lead up to a genuine catastrophe.
No, not Brexit. No, not Bremain. I think the catastrophe could happen whichever way the referendum turns out.
I think this referendum could become the catalyst for long-term violence. I feel reminded of reading about the referendums that led to the creation of the Republic of Ireland - and the split with Northern Ireland. The most passionate of the losers of that referendum in NI ultimately turned into the IRA and caused The Troubles.
The worst thing is, I'm not sure the outcome of the referendum matters:
If Vote Remain wins, then Britain First et al could turn from mostly hooligans to a large number of violent terrorists.
If Vote Leave wins, but politicians pick the EFTA option to preserve jobs and the economy and their own re-electability (as they would), then Britain First et al will see this as a betrayal (as free movement of people would still apply & UK would still pay heftily into the EU), and so they could turn from hooligans to terrorists.
There are already quite a few actively violent far-right terrorists in the UK, for example
So far, they have been targeting Muslims, and so far, they've been largely incompetent. My worry is that this referendum - and the way it has been so utterly mismanaged - could lead to a catastrophic growth of far-right violence and terror, and to a new era of Troubles for the UK and Europe.
Britain First alone has 1.4 million fans. That's 1.4 million radicalised extremists with terrorist sympathies. (For comparison, the radical extremist Anjem Choudary's following is in the tens of thousands, not millions). What is our government doing to prevent a total catastrophe?
Considering how incompetent David Cameron has been at handling the EU referendum so far, and how his incompetence has allowed it to become a farce festering extremism, I am deeply worried about the prospects of the UK. A few weeks ago, I thought the main consequences of the referendum were likely to be economic. Now, I am wondering whether we're on the cusp of something much worse.