The horrible murder of MP Jo Cox has cast a poignant and heartbreaking shadow over the final days in the run-up to the EU referendum. The outpouring of grief and loss from her constituency and in Westminster show just how much she was loved and appreciated and how much she will be missed. It was a timely reminder that politicians – like other human beings – are nearly all good people. Jo, and MPs like her, work hard for their constituents and are driven by a positive desire to make the world a better place. And yet the standing of politicians in general is at an all-time low. It’s surprising how many people say “they’re generally a bad bunch – but mine’s all right”. Look no further than the usual suspects in the press to explain that.
(Incidentally, it was a sadly missed opportunity that the Daily Telegraph was the newspaper that broke the story about MPs’ expenses. The Barclay brothers’ Telegraph clearly had an agenda and spun the story to make all MPs look as bad as each other. This had two advantages to their “we support the Tories but want to push them even further to the right” strategy. Firstly, they knew that Labour supporters would be much less tolerant of such behaviour than Tory supporters, thereby giving the latter an electoral advantage. And secondly, discrediting all politicians further undermines democracy and makes it easier for the Barclays and their like to exercise more de facto political power.)
But, now back to current politics and the EU referendum. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Jo Cox stands the ultimate in the truly bad politicians: Nigel Farage. Just two hours before Jo Cox was murdered, UK politics sank to a new moral low when Farage stood in front of the now-notorious “Breaking Point” poster. This was a classic piece of political mischief-making straight out of the Joseph Goebbels textbook. There are, indeed, politicians – though thankfully not, in this case, an elected one – prepared to stir up the vilest of human attributes: bigotry, prejudice and barely-disguised racism. The poster was the most cynical misrepresentation of the facts showing a line of desperate people fleeing a war-torn country – none of whom are ever likely to come anywhere near the UK.
In attempting to distance himself from this despicable piece of fear-inducing, rabble-rousing propaganda, Michael Gove protested about how “shocked” he was. And Boris “I don’t really care who wins the referendum as long as it helps my chances to become PM” Johnson similarly distanced himself from it. Who are these people attempting to occupy the moral high ground? They’re leading the official Vote Leave campaign.
On the morning after Cox’s murder, a small 4-page leaflet, entitled The European Union and Your Family: The Facts, landed on my doormat. It was from the campaign team led by Gove and Johnson. Page 1 contains two “facts” that are both outright lies: the notorious £350 million a week bill for EU membership and the claim that Turkey is lined up to join the EU. Pages 2 and 3 contain 8 bullet points claiming to be facts. Two are repeats of those on page 1. One is broadly true. One quotes the figure of annual migrants from the EU, but fails to mention the number who leave each year, painting a misleading picture. One contains a complete non sequitur about the EU claiming “more control” to “prop up the Euro”. Understand that link? I don’t. One is a misrepresentation of EU and domestic law and makes the usual mistake about the European Court of Human Rights being part of the EU – which it isn’t. The last two are grossly misleading statements about the division of business and expert opinion. Page 4 repeats the lies from page 1, but now represented graphically. It also poses a totally irrelevant question to the one on the ballot paper.
In short, the leaflet is a crock of shit. It plays on the same fears and aims to stoke up similar base instincts that the Farage poster does. The moral ground occupied by the leaflet is barely higher than that of Farage. I disagree with David Cameron on most things, but I salute his robust statement on the BBC’s Question Time that the two “facts” on page 1 of the Vote Leave leaflet and the “threat of an EU army” are just outright lies.
Compare the people in the two camps in the referendum and compare the things they have said during the campaign. There is no moral equivalence. The economic argument has long since been won hands down by the Remain campaign. The so-called “Project Fear” has at least been an attempt to get across some basic information, albeit often in an over-simplified way. But the Leave campaign has been straight lies and personal attacks.
Who Are We?
So, the moral question is: what sort of a people are we British? Do we want to turn our backs on our closest neighbours and shout at them from the outside? (I use the word “closest” both in a geographical and a cultural sense.) A vote to leave would turn Britain into some form of international pariah: the country that abandoned its friends when times were tough. We would forfeit nearly all the moral authority we hold in the world, which currently allows us to punch above our weight on the world stage. In the words of historian Anthony Beevor, we risk becoming “the world’s most-hated nation”.
Are we as mean-spirited, bigoted, hateful of “the other”, xenophobic and downright misanthropic as you would find in a land created in the image of Nigel Farage? Or do we aspire to the “powerful and compelling humanity” of Jo Cox and the majority of her fellow MPs? I know amongst whom I’d rather be living, come Friday morning.