Theresa May’s Brexit Speech: Soaring Ambition On A Foundation Of Sand

A grandiose speech with little serious thinking to back it up

Well, if anything lures me back to blogging then it may as well be Theresa May’s speech outlining the government’s long-awaited plan for Brexit.

I must admit that I am rather conflicted. This blog is on the record as holding Theresa May in rather low esteem in terms of her commitment to small government, individual liberty and conservatism in general, but it cannot be denied – least of all by someone like me who routinely criticises political speeches for being dull and uninspiring – that from a purely rhetorical perspective, May’s speech was satisfying both in terms of emotion and ambition.

Here was a speech almost in the American political tradition – reaching back through history to affirm the roots of British exceptionalism, the challenge now before us and the promise that an even greater Britain can be ours if only we strive for it:

It’s why we will put the preservation of our precious Union at the heart of everything we do. Because it is only by coming together as one great union of nations and people that we can make the most of the opportunities ahead. The result of the referendum was not a decision to turn inward and retreat from the world.

Because Britain’s history and culture is profoundly internationalist.

We are a European country – and proud of our shared European heritage – but we are also a country that has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world. That is why we are one of the most racially diverse countries in Europe, one of the most multicultural members of the European Union, and why – whether we are talking about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, countries in Africa or those that are closer to home in Europe – so many of us have close friends and relatives from across the world.

Instinctively, we want to travel to, study in, trade with countries not just in Europe but beyond the borders of our continent. Even now as we prepare to leave the EU, we are planning for the next biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018 – a reminder of our unique and proud global relationships.

And it is important to recognise this fact. June the 23rd was not the moment Britain chose to step back from the world. It was the moment we chose to build a truly Global Britain.

The peroration was particularly good, as May eschewed the temptation to bribe the electorate with glib promises of riches today and instead asked us to consider the longer term good, as well as our place in the history books:

So that is what we will do.

Not merely forming a new partnership with Europe, but building a stronger, fairer, more Global Britain too.

And let that be the legacy of our time. The prize towards which we work. The destination at which we arrive once the negotiation is done.

And let us do it not for ourselves, but for those who follow. For the country’s children and grandchildren too.

So that when future generations look back at this time, they will judge us not only by the decision that we made, but by what we made of that decision.

They will see that we shaped them a brighter future.

They will know that we built them a better Britain.

When nearly every other major set piece speech in British politics is little more than a dismal effort to placate a restive and self-entitled electorate by promising the people Free Things Without Effort or Consequences (ask not what you can do for your country but what your country can do for you), here was a speech that set its sights a little higher and actually aspired to statecraft.

May’s criticism of the European Union and justification of the UK’s decision to secede from the EU was very good, particularly coming from someone who herself supported the Remain side and kept her head firmly beneath the parapet during the referendum campaign:

Our political traditions are different. Unlike other European countries, we have no written constitution, but the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty is the basis of our unwritten constitutional settlement. We have only a recent history of devolved governance – though it has rapidly embedded itself – and we have little history of coalition government.

The public expect to be able to hold their governments to account very directly, and as a result supranational institutions as strong as those created by the European Union sit very uneasily in relation to our political history and way of life.

And, while I know Britain might at times have been seen as an awkward member state, the European Union has struggled to deal with the diversity of its member countries and their interests. It bends towards uniformity, not flexibility.

Without straying into undiplomatic language, May firmly placed responsibility for Brexit at the foot of a Brussels supranational government which is inflexibly committed to endless political integration by stealth, with member state individuality subordinate to European harmonisation.

The prime minister was also at pains to point out that dissatisfaction with the EU is by no means a uniquely British phenomenon, and that significant numbers of people in other member states hold many of the same legitimate grievances:

Now I do not believe that these things apply uniquely to Britain. Britain is not the only member state where there is a strong attachment to accountable and democratic government, such a strong internationalist mindset, or a belief that diversity within Europe should be celebrated. And so I believe there is a lesson in Brexit not just for Britain but, if it wants to succeed, for the EU itself.

Because our continent’s great strength has always been its diversity. And there are 2 ways of dealing with different interests. You can respond by trying to hold things together by force, tightening a vice-like grip that ends up crushing into tiny pieces the very things you want to protect. Or you can respect difference, cherish it even, and reform the EU so that it deals better with the wonderful diversity of its member states.

Of course this blog, unconstrained by any need for diplomatic restraint, would have gone further. Theresa May was at pains to state that a strong and united European Union is in Britain’s interest, which sounds magnanimous and sensible until you actually recognise the punch which is being pulled.

If the EU is an antidemocratic straightjacket imposing unwanted political integration on national populations who are ambivalent at best, why do we wish that the organisation prospers for decades to come? Do we not think our European friends and allies as deserving of democracy and the right to self-determination that we demand for ourselves? But this is nitpicking – the Brexit negotiations would hardly be served if May openly salivated at the prospect of the breakup of the European Union.

In her outreach to other European leaders, assuring them of Britain’s continuing goodwill, one almost hears an echo (okay, a very, very distant and diminished echo) of Lincoln’s first inaugural (“The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors…”) as May asserts that the UK government will negotiate in good faith so long as the EU reciprocates:

So to our friends across Europe, let me say this.

Our vote to leave the European Union was no rejection of the values we share. The decision to leave the EU represents no desire to become more distant to you, our friends and neighbours. It was no attempt to do harm to the EU itself or to any of its remaining member states. We do not want to turn the clock back to the days when Europe was less peaceful, less secure and less able to trade freely. It was a vote to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy, national self-determination, and to become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit.

We will continue to be reliable partners, willing allies and close friends. We want to buy your goods and services, sell you ours, trade with you as freely as possible, and work with one another to make sure we are all safer, more secure and more prosperous through continued friendship.

You will still be welcome in this country as we hope our citizens will be welcome in yours. At a time when together we face a serious threat from our enemies, Britain’s unique intelligence capabilities will continue to help to keep people in Europe safe from terrorism. And at a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty.

We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.

All of this is good. So why am I not celebrating?

Because then the prime minister proceeded to outline her government’s plans and priorities for the upcoming Brexit negotiation. And at that point it became clear that we are not dealing with Abraham Lincoln but rather with James Buchanan.

In other words, the real problem with Theresa May’s speech came when she pivoted from the background context to the government’s 12-point plan (or exercise in wishful thinking).

Pete North says it best:

In just a few short passages May has driven a horse and cart through all good sense.

For starters May has misunderstood the exam question. The process of leaving the EU is to negotiate a framework for leaving and a framework for continued cooperation. Instead she has taken it as the process of securing a trade deal – which doesn’t even begin to acknowledge the depth and complexity of the task. Because of this Theresa May will ensure we pay the maximum price possible.

By any estimation there is no possibility of securing a comprehensive agreement in two years and if we reach any kind of impasse then all of the leverage falls to member states as we beg for an extension.

Worse still, May has fallen for the mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal and is prepared to walk away from the table. This would result in the WTO option and would be the single most egregious act of economic self harm ever recorded. As much as that is to be avoided there is now every chance that it will happen by accident as our time expires.

May has drunk deeply from the Brexiteer kool aid and Britain is about to find itself substantially poorer with fewer opportunities for trade. This will be the Tory Iraq. Blundering with half a clue and no plan and no real understanding of the landscape, resting the fate of the adventure on some overly optimistic patriotic nostrums that fold at first exposure to reality.

While the EU Referendum blog patiently explains why Theresa May’s declaration of intent is such a tall order:

Mrs May has set her face against a rational, measured Brexit and is embarking on a wild gamble, the outcome of which she has no way of predicting.

Such is her idea of pursuing “a bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement with the European Union”, an undertaking which others have tried in the recent past – the most recent being Canada, which has spent eight years now in trying to bring an agreement to fruition, and we’re still waiting. The possibility, therefore, of the UK negotiating a deal (and getting it ratified) inside two years is, to say the very least, remote.

Nevertheless, there are those who think otherwise. They argue that, because the UK is already in the EU and achieved full regulatory convergence, transition from one type of agreement to another should be relatively straightforward and swift.

That, however, is completely to understate the complexity of modern trade agreements. In addition to regulatory convergence, there must be a dynamic arrangement that will ensure the automatic uptake of new regulation, and also the changes mandated by ECJ judgements. There must also be internal market surveillance measures, agreed conformity assessment measures, customs agreements, dispute settlement procedures, agreements on competition policy, procurement and intellectual property rights, as well as systems to deal with rules of origin.

These and much else, will require an institutional structure to facilitate communication and ongoing development, a form of arbitration panel or court, and a consultation body, which allows input into, and formal communication with the EU’s regulatory and institutional system.

And concludes:

This is my way of saying that to achieve a “bold and ambitious” free trade agreement with the EU inside two years is not just difficult. It is impossible. It cannot be done. And it doesn’t matter how many times it is discussed amongst the chattering classes, it still can’t be done.

It has been over eighteen months since this blog woke up to the fact that lazy Brexiteer tropes about quick-n-easy free trade agreements being the golden solution to every problem simply do not cut it in the face of such an unimaginably complex undertaking as extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Since that time, it has become clear to me and many others that forty years of political integration cannot be unpicked within the two-year timeframe granted through Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and that any attempt to negotiate a bespoke solution within this timeframe would see us hit the deadline without a deal in sight, leaving us at the mercy of the EU27 as we scramble for an extension or risk going over the cliff and resorting to WTO rules.

But what has been clear to this blog (since I first read of the Flexcit plan for a phased and managed Brexit with an eye to developing the new global single market which must eventually replace the parochial EU) and to a growing number of Brexiteers remains completely opaque and mysterious to Her Majesty’s Government:

So as a priority, we will pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union.

This agreement should allow for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s member states. It should give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets – and let European businesses do the same in Britain.

But I want to be clear. What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market.

European leaders have said many times that membership means accepting the ‘4 freedoms’ of goods, capital, services and people. And being out of the EU but a member of the single market would mean complying with the EU’s rules and regulations that implement those freedoms, without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are. It would mean accepting a role for the European Court of Justice that would see it still having direct legal authority in our country.

It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all.

And that is why both sides in the referendum campaign made it clear that a vote to leave the EU would be a vote to leave the single market.

So we do not seek membership of the single market. Instead we seek the greatest possible access to it through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement.

That agreement may take in elements of current single market arrangements in certain areas – on the export of cars and lorries for example, or the freedom to provide financial services across national borders – as it makes no sense to start again from scratch when Britain and the remaining Member States have adhered to the same rules for so many years.

But I respect the position taken by European leaders who have been clear about their position, just as I am clear about mine. So an important part of the new strategic partnership we seek with the EU will be the pursuit of the greatest possible access to the single market, on a fully reciprocal basis, through a comprehensive free trade agreement.

Okay, great. And you plan to accomplish this in just two years, at a time when we are rebuilding our national trade negotiation competency from scratch? And what about the numerous other aspects of our co-operation with Brussels that do not directly relate to the single market? What process is there to be for evaluating and renegotiating these?

Ministers clearly still view Brexit through the narrow lens of wanting to sever all of the ties that bind us to Brussels and hope that a “quick and dirty” free trade agreement will somehow be a good substitute for patiently considering and unpicking each individual strand of co-operation between London, Brussels and the EU27.

And unless Theresa May has another, top secret Brexit ministry devoted to unglamorous issues like mutual recognition of regulatory standards (rather than burbling inanities about tariffs) then we are in for a very rude awakening at some point within the next two years.

Look: I like the ambition and confident tone of Theresa May’s speech. I like some of the swagger and self-confidence. And if May had been speaking about any subject other than Brexit in this manner I would be on my feet, giving a standing ovation. But unfortunately the prime minister has chosen to be smug and blasé about the one topic where airy self-assurance alone cannot win the day.

The prime minister accurately summed up many of the problems with the European Union, and did a good job in reminding people what an indispensable country Britain really is to the future economic, cultural and geopolitical prospects of Europe. That’s great. But it doesn’t begin to explain how Britain is going to negotiate an entirely bespoke new relationship with the European Union within two years when far less extensive deals focusing purely on trade routinely take over a decade to complete.

Ambition is good, but it must be tempered with reality. When John F Kennedy dedicated America to landing a man on the moon and safely returning him to Earth before the end of the 1960s, the specific technologies and facilities needed to achieve the historic feat may not all have existed, but the competencies to invent and build them certainly did. Not so with Britain and the goal of a two-year bespoke Brexit deal.

Unpicking forty years of political integration within two years would be an unimaginably tall order at the best of times, even if the organisation into which we are subsumed had not gradually drained us of the critical competencies required to complete the task. Theresa May promising a clean Brexit given our current national capabilities and negotiating climate is like President Theodore Roosevelt promising a moon shot in 1903, when the Wright brothers rather than Wernher von Braun represented the pinnacle of aviation technology.

So mixed feelings. How nice to finally hear a political speech that is so outward-looking and ambitious in content, positive in rhetoric. How sad that this particular one is likely to end in disappointment and recrimination.

 

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John F Kennedy On The Responsibilities Of Educated Citizens

John F. Kennedy, May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963

From Kennedy’s address to the 90th anniversary convocation of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, delivered on May 18, 1963:

But this Nation was not founded solely on the principle of citizens’ rights. Equally important, though too often not discussed, is the citizen’s responsibility. For our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. The protection of our rights can endure no longer than the performance of our responsibilities. Each can be neglected only at the peril of the other. I speak to you today, therefore, not of your rights as Americans, but of your responsibilities. They are many in number and different in nature. They do not rest with equal weight upon the shoulders of all. Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of responsibility. All Americans must be responsible citizens, but some must be more responsible than others, by virtue of their public or their private position, their role in the family or community, their prospects for the future, or their legacy from the past.

Increased responsibility goes with increased ability, for “of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

[..] You have responsibilities, in short, to use your talents for the benefit of the society which helped develop those talents. You must decide, as Goethe put it, whether you will be an anvil or a hammer, whether you will give to the world in which you were reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of that education. Of the many special obligations incumbent upon an educated citizen, I would cite three as outstanding: your obligation to the pursuit of learning, your obligation to serve the public, your obligation to uphold the law.

If the pursuit of learning is not defended by the educated citizen, it will not be defended at all. For there will always be those who scoff at intellectuals, who cry out against research, who seek to limit our educational system. Modern cynics and skeptics see no more reason for landing a man on the moon, which we shall do, than the cynics and skeptics of half a millennium ago saw for the discovery of this country. They see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.

But the educated citizen knows how much more there is to know. He knows that “knowledge is power,” more so today than ever before. He knows that only an educated and informed people will be a free people, that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all, and that if we can, as Jefferson put it, “enlighten the people generally … tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

[..] Secondly, the educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. He may be a precinct worker or President. He may give his talents at the courthouse, the State house, the White House. He may be a civil servant or a Senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But he must be a participant and not a spectator.

[..] Third, and finally, the educated citizen has an obligation to uphold the law. This is the obligation of every citizen in a free and peaceful society–but the educated citizen has a special responsibility by the virtue of his greater understanding. For whether he has ever studied history or current events, ethics or civics, the rules of a profession or the tools of a trade, he knows that only a respect for the law makes it possible for free men to dwell together in peace and progress.

He knows that law is the adhesive force in the cement of society, creating order out of chaos and coherence in place of anarchy. He knows that for one man to defy a law or court order he does not like is to invite others to defy those which they do not like, leading to a breakdown of all justice and all order. He knows, too, that every fellowman is entitled to be regarded with decency and treated with dignity. Any educated citizen who seeks to subvert the law, to suppress freedom, or to subject other human beings to acts that are less than human, degrades his heritage, ignores his learning, and betrays his obligation.

I think that we can all take something from this speech as an inspiration to strive to be better citizens, no matter our position on American politics and the forthcoming presidency of Donald J Trump. None of us are above learning from the example set by great men and women of the past.

Yet nobody gives speeches like this any more. Why?

Is modern political speechwriting so poor because it reflects the abysmal quality of our present political discourse, or is our political discourse so poor because our contemporary leaders, more concerned with bribing and placating a fickle public than calling us to any kind of higher duty, have increasingly lost the rhetorical skills required to persuade and inspire their citizens?

 

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This EU Referendum Is Of Existential Importance. So Why Is The Campaign Rhetoric So Unequal To The Occasion?

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The age of glib soundbites and dumbed-down, instantly shareable viral social media memes is perfectly suited to the Remain campaign’s strategy of sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt as widely as possible. But if we still lived in the age of great political speeches, the Brexiteers would be winning this EU referendum by a landslide

Because I’m an oddball, sometimes I like to spend time reading or listening to great political speeches from the past – particularly those from American politics.

Two of the more obvious such speeches – JFK’s “We Choose To Go To The Moon” and Theodore Roosevelt’s “Dare Mighty Things” – have been forcing themselves repeatedly to the forefront of my mind lately, though until tonight I was unsure why.

Then this evening I stumbled on this 2011 article by Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. Though the article’s discussion of social media shows its age, it makes for an interesting read today:

One way to change minds about the current crisis is through information. We all know this, and we all know about the marvellous changes in technology that allow for the spreading of messages that are not necessarily popular with gatekeepers and establishments. But there’s something new happening in the realm of political communication that must be noted. Speeches are back. They have been rescued and restored as a political force by the Internet.

In the past quarter-century or so, the speech as a vehicle of sustained political argument was killed by television and radio. Rhetoric was reduced to the TV producer’s 10-second soundbite, the correspondent’s eight-second insert. The makers of speeches (even the ones capable of sustained argument) saw what was happening and promptly gave up. Why give your brain and soul to a serious, substantive statement when it will all be reduced to a snip of sound? They turned their speeches into soundbite after soundbite, applause line after applause line, and a great political tradition was traduced.

But the Internet is changing all that. It is restoring rhetoric as a force. When Gov. Mitch Daniels made his big speech – a serious, substantive one – two weeks ago, Drudge had the transcript and video up in a few hours. Gov. Chris Christie’s big speech was quickly on the net in its entirety. All the CPAC speeches were up. TED conference speeches are all over the net, as are people making speeches at town-hall meetings. I get links to full speeches every day in my inbox and you probably do too.

People in politics think it’s all Facebook and Twitter now, but it’s not. Not everything is fractured and in pieces, some things are becoming more whole. People hunger for serious, fleshed-out ideas about what is happening in our country. We all know it’s a pivotal time.

Look what happened a year ago to a Wisconsin businessman named Ron Johnson. He was thinking of running for the Senate against an incumbent, Democratic heavy-hitter Russ Feingold. He started making speeches talking about his conception of freedom. They were serious, sober, and not sound-bitey at all. A conservative radio host named Charlie Sykes got hold of a speech Mr. Johnson gave at a Lincoln Day dinner in Oshkosh. He liked it and read it aloud on his show for 20 minutes. A speech! The audience listened and loved it. A man called in and said, “Yes, yes, yes!” Another said, “I have to agree with everything that guy said.” Mr. Johnson decided to run because of that reaction, and in November he won. This week he said, “The reason I’m a U.S. senator is because Charlie Sykes did that.” But the reason Mr. Sykes did it is that Mr. Johnson made a serious speech.

A funny thing about politicians is that they’re all obsessed with “messaging” and “breaking through” and “getting people to listen.” They’re convinced that some special kind of cleverness is needed, that some magical communications formula exists and can be harnessed if only discovered. They should settle down, survey the technological field and get serious. They should give pertinent, truthful, sophisticated and sober-minded speeches. Everyone will listen. They’ll be all over the interwebs.

What a strange idea: the internet restoring rhetoric as an important part of our political debate. While this positive trend may have flared briefly in America for a time as Noonan indicates, we have certainly seen no comparable renaissance of political speechwriting here in Britain. Sure, Nigel Farage can deliver a withering put-down in the European Parliament and the SNP’s Mhairi Black can make sentimental lefties go all misty-eyed, but as a rule, for at least the past thirty years, political speeches in Britain have been pedestrian and utterly forgettable.

This is rather odd. Britain is currently engaged in an existential debate over whether we leave or remain in the European Union, the seriousness of this one issue dwarfing any mere general election, as the prime minister himself has opined. Surely the speeches made by our politicians should therefore reflect the gravity of the decision before us. But does our rhetoric meet the level and tone required of such a debate? Hardly.

As an ardent Brexiteer, one of the main problems I encounter when debating the issue with people – particularly online – is that abstract concepts such as democracy and self-determination are much harder to put into words or summarise with a glib but memorable phrase, while the fearmongering rhetoric of the Remain campaign naturally lends itself to viral sharing. It is much easier to (falsely and hysterically) declare that pensioners will be £32,000 worse off or that 100,000 marriages in London will fail because of Brexit than to explain the intangible importance of living in a properly free society – and almost inevitably the person attempting to argue the side of self-governance ends up sounding ponderous and vague in contrast with the swivel-eyed certainties uttered by Remainers.

And when eurosceptics try to dial up the rhetorical heat, too often it comes off badly. While UKIP-ish phrases like “we want our country back” are certainly memorable, they also have a distinctly nativist twang which alienates a good many people even as it fires up true believers. It is the same story with these key phrases, repeated over and over again by the official Vote Leave campaign, from their daily emails to the phrases of key surrogates:

We send £350 million a week to the EU – enough to build a new hospital every week

250,000 EU migrants a year come to the UK and five new countries are in the queue to join – including Albania, Serbia, and Turkey – it’s out of control and damages the NHS

It’s safer to take back control and spend our money on our priorities

This is apparently the best that the cream of Britain’s eurosceptic talent can do – an utterly unbelievable pledge about diverting 100% of our current EU contributions, including the rebate, to building new hospitals, and an unconnected pivot from the NHS to it being “safer” to spend money on our priorities. One can just about see what Vote Leave is trying to do, but it is an amateurish, almost childlike attempt at political messaging.

Meanwhile, here is the slicker effort from Britain Stronger in Europe:

Britain is stronger, safer and better off in Europe than we would be out on our own.

Join the campaign to remain in Europe – and let’s secure a stronger Britain that delivers opportunity now and for future generations

Never mind that it is based on a lie. A lie repeated identically and often enough can be incredibly effective, as it is with Vote Leave’s misrepresentation that leaving the political organisation known as the EU means leaving the continent of Europe. There is also more of a positive message here – where Vote Leave talk about Brexit being “safer”, suggesting danger and a defensive attitude, Stronger In talk about “deliver[ing] opportunity now and for future generations”, exuding positivity for today and for tomorrow as well.

Only when the message delivery window is longer than a quick email or a short social media meme does the Brexit side begin to redress the balance. Put aside their dubious and counterproductive tactics for a moment, but Vote Leave spokespeople like Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan (even Nigel Farage) can paint an extremely attractive picture of Britain outside the European Union in a speech, particularly when they aren’t butchering the idea of how to go about achieving their goal.

Even more pertinently, look at the Flexcit plan for leaving the European Union, which is increasingly being seized upon by key influencers who despair of Vote Leave’s amateurism and lack of a clear, risk-minimising Brexit plan. Flexcit itself is a 400 page document, while the summary pamphlet clocks in at a still substantial 40+ pages. At a recent TED-style talk in central London, Dr. Richard North (Flexcit’s primary author) took an hour to lay out the ideas and reasoning behind it. Though the Leave Alliance network of committed bloggers (full disclosure: I am one of them) do a sterling job of breaking down and simplifying the concepts so as to sell them more effectively to key influencers and the public, Flexcit will never be an easily-shared, one page meme on Facebook. Nor should it be. Serious and weighty issues require serious responses.

But increasingly it appears that the Leave camp will be punished at the ballot box for the fact that its core argument about democracy and self-determination cannot be boiled down to a single positive phrase or graphic in the same way as the establishment-backed Remain campaign can churn out endless content, together with slick but abhorrent messages from professional agencies:

Operation Black Vote - OBV - A vote is a vote - EU Referendum - European Union

Of course Vote Leave are guilty of shameless fearmongering too, never more so than with this dreadful fearmongering ad about Turkey joining the EU:

Vote Leave - Turkey Joining EU

But whether it is raising fears of knuckle-dragging, Brexit supporting skinheads or the armies of Turkish immigrants who will apparently all decamp to Britain en masse at the first opportunity, both are seen as highly effective tools by their respective campaigns, and both rely on communicating a primitive, fear-based message not with rich rhetoric but with a short, sharp visual, the better to hold our limited attention spans.

In many ways, it is a tragedy for the Brexit cause that this opportunity to extricate ourselves from an unwanted supranational government of Europe has come about when the internet has taken off and the average person’s idea of profound political engagement is liking and sharing the latest snide Huffington Post article with their friends on Facebook. When the debate over whether or not Britain should join Europe raged in the late 1960s and early 70s, the art of making serious (if not quite great) speeches was still just about alive – Hugh Gaitskell’s famous address to the Labour Party conference warning against joining the EEC stands as one such example of memorable oratory, culminating in the famous “thousand years of history” quote:

We must be clear about this; it does mean, if this is the idea, the end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say: “Let it end.” But, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought.

But when the history of Britain’s 2016 EU referendum comes to be written, what will we remember? Of all the particularly dramatic moments in the campaign to date, none of them have been speeches. Sure, sometimes the fact of a speech has been newsworthy, such as when an unexpected establishment figure has been wheeled out to say that Brexit will usher in the apocalypse, but the content – the oratory itself – has rarely raised hairs or stiffened spines.

In fact, proving Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous assertion that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people, the media has determinedly reported almost exclusively on the latter two. Of course that is always the temptation for journalists, but our politicians have hardly given the media much to work with on the ideas front, even if they were minded to cover them.

This is a depressing state of affairs. This most important debate should be bringing out the best in our politicians and our media. We should be witnessing a straight-up fight between advocates of the democratic, independent nation state and those who ardently believe in the euro-federalist dream, adjudicated by a press corps  beholden to neither side and always willing to challenge baseless assertions rather than merely provide a “fair and balanced” platform for two partisan idiots to yell at each other for an equal amount of time.

In this debate, our elected leaders should be role models in setting the tone of the debate. Of course they are not, because our professional political class are very much part of the problem – the main reason why Brexit should only be the first step in a broader process of constitutional reform and democratic renewal in Britain.

But here we are, a country administered by followers rather than leaders, watched over by a childish and corrupted press who would rather giggle about the referendum’s personal dramas than fulfil their democratic function. And too little time before the referendum to hope that anything much will change.

All of which is bad for Brexiteers. After all, this is an age when scaremongering claims and assertions about the supposed cost of Brexit can be “quantified”, slapped on a smug little infographic and shared ten thousand times before breakfast, while the importance of self-determination an democracy – the ability of the people to influence the decisions which affect them and dismiss those with power – is almost impossible to boil down to a single eye-catching number, despite being the most precious benefit of all.

Without honest political leaders to establish a narrative and bigger picture – and without a robust media to report – it is effectively left to well-intentioned citizens to hold the grown-up debate amongst themselves, citizens who (for all their pluck) often struggle to cut through the noise of the vapid official campaign.

What’s most galling about all of this is the fact that there are many people alive today who have living memory of hearing great political rhetoric deployed in service of consequential issues – if not in Britain, at least in America:

The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself.

We Choose To Go To The Moon.

The Great Society.

I Have A Dream.

Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You.

Robert Kennedy’s speech on the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Tear Down This Wall.

And even Britain has managed to offer worthy efforts, including:

We Shall Fight On The Beaches.

The Few.

The Winds Of Change.

The Lady’s Not For Turning.

The Grotesque Chaos Of A Labour Council.

What words uttered by our contemporary politicians during this EU referendum will be long remembered or quoted fifty years from now?

My prediction: not a damn one. But at least there will be a great treasure trove of vapid tweets and misleading infographics for historians to pick through as they wonder why Britain signed away her freedom.

 

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Top Image: Guardian

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