Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The big debate

I represented the leave side in a debate at Bath Spa University last night. An interesting experience on several counts. In so many ways, the online campaign is less about why we should leave as how we leave, so when stepping out into the real world, condensing the case for leaving is no easy task. It's sometimes easy to lose sight of why we're doing this.

When tasked with making the case it's difficult to know where to start without falling back on tired mantras which no longer hold true. The EU issue is not by any means one dimensional. There are many prisms through which to look at it. There is no dumbing it down. There is no simplifying it.

At best you can only hope to explain it in the hope that the reasons for leaving become self evident. But that is no easy task either when the foundations you're building on are so weak. As much as public knowledge of the EU is thin, the desire to find out is also weak.

I was asked by one of the students what the benefits are for the average student who doesn't give much thought to politics. And that has been the hallmark of this entire campaign. People throughout tend only to be interested insofar is it affects them in a material sense. Talking about the need for democracy is wholly futile, not least when most of the public have an anaemic understanding of what democracy is and how government works.

That makes any serious debate next to impossible. This is a battle of concepts more than anything. Multilateralism versus supranationalism, democracy versus managerialism, past versus the future. And that is why I expect to lose the referendum.

It is apparent to me that we do not have the raw material for a participatory democracy. For that to happen we first need a public that wants to participate. People don't want to be bothered by such questions. They want to live their insular selfish lives and will only vote insofar as something has a practical impact on their own lives. For anything else they are only too happy to abdicate their responsibilities as citizens.

As depressing as that is from the man in the street, it is even more depressing to hear from students. The staggering lack of knowledge on display is matched only back the lack of inherent curiosity and the willingness to trust in information spoonfed to them. It prompts me to ask why we even bother having universities still.

As much as I tried to boil it down to one or two basic concepts, I found the democracy argument does not resonate. As a people we are out of the habit of owning the decisions we make. It seems to me that the next generation will have to discover the hard way what democracy is and why it's something worth having.

For the time being, the question on nearly everyone's lips is "what's in it for me?" - and if that's the question they want me to answer - and "democracy" isn't enough of an incentive then the whole exercise is entirely pointless.

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