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Is the EU referendum a signifier of democracy in terminal decline?

trump and johnson

Are these the faces we want to see smiling on June 24th?

A very close friend recently mused ‘is democracy in terminal decline or just past its prime?’. It is a sad, but all too apt and well-phrased reflection.

It followed the election of Rodrigo “The Punisher” Duterte as President-elect of the Philippines. A candidate about whom the best the Guardian could say was “bigoted, loud-mouthed, misogynist, populist” appears to have received 39% of the popular vote in, effectively, a five-candidate race. His success is said to be based largely on his zero-tolerance of crime and disorder in the city of Davao where he has been Mayor for 22 years, and his alleged complicity in hundreds of extra-judicial killings to enforce his intolerance.

Talking of ‘bigoted, loud-mouthed, misogynist, populists’ brings to mind Donald Trump – the almost certain standard-bearer of the Republican Party at the impending US presidential election. Meanwhile, in Brazil, of the five presidents elected since the end of military dictatorship in 1985, only two have completed their terms in office – one having died before inauguration, and the other two (including the present Dilma Rousseff) having been removed by impeachment. And, notwithstanding the narrowest of defeats, Austria has just had a presidential election dead heat between the Far Right, anti-immigrant, gun-toting Norbert Hofer (with 49.7% of the vote), and the ex-Green Party leader uniting the remnants of the centre with left wing votes.

All of which serves as an hors d’oeuvres for the current fiascos in the UK.

This blog has argued previously about the meaningless absurdity of the EU in-out referendum due on June 23rd. The campaigning by the major protagonists presents a parade of increasingly toxic claims and counter-claims from which, like the Austrian president, one side will claim absolute ‘victory’, but which will do nothing to determine a sensible societal outcome and build a consensus around it.

Like Trump and Mexicans, Brexit demonises Turkey – a country highly unlikely to join the EU anytime soon, which a British (or Greek Cypriot) government could veto anyway, and where EU membership would be the most effective mechanism for the UK to ration Turks’ movement post-membership. It raises the spectre of the EU as a Hitler super-state. It celebrates the vindictive, nastiness of EU institutions, and then promotes a post-Brexit scenario where these same leaders and institutions enable the UK to exit amicably and supportively.

Cameron and Osborne, meanwhile, have focused on severe economic shocks in the short and medium term, and the long run risk of continental wars as reasons to Remain. These are more plausible and arguable than the Brexit scenarios, but raise killer questions. Why are they prepared to bring the UK to the precipice of disaster, in a non-legally binding referendum, if this is what they honestly believe? And what was the supposed renegotiation of terms of membership about? This focused on transactional adjustments – certainly NOT the transcendental risks of EU/UK breakdown.

What is fundamentally lacking in the ‘bigoted, loud-mouthed, populist’ discourse of the elites of both sides is honesty and humility.

There have been one or two outbreaks of at least one of the ‘two H’s’. For Brexit, their largest donor – Peter Hargreaves – was at least honest. He promoted leaving the EU in order to raise insecurity in a ‘Dunkirk’ moment of existential crisis. He celebrates “insecurity is fantastic” (to stimulate UK creativity and innovation).  This is an argument which smacks of the truth – albeit rather easier to make when you have a net worth estimated at £1.9bn (Sunday Times rich list).

Of a different character, Corbyn’s Remain argument might comprise both ‘H’s’. Deeply critical of the EU, on balance he advocates Remain. Building a Europe committed to social welfare is a project with integrity. And the EU provides a valuable, civilising safety net against the Tory elite’s neo-liberal assault on struggling communities.

The problem with both Hargreaves and, more worryingly, Labour’s position is that neither the elites nor their media allies will engage with it (or other serious, complex arguments). And so, June 23rd – for the relatively disengaged, indifferent voter who can be bothered to turn out –  becomes a choice of which brand of hysteria or which sociopathic liar you choose to support on that particular day.

In those terms the agreement of ISIS, Trump, Galloway and Farage (ITGF) for Brexit represents the clearest rationale for a Remain vote that I could argue at my local pub. Any one of them singly is abhorrent – but if they all agree on something….

Against that evil, Cameron and his allies are deeply flawed, unattractive Toffs, privileged and unelectable in my opinion – but hardly in the ITGF league.

Which brings us back to the democratic malaise. The Austrian presidential vote, the rise of Far Right xenophobic parties in Europe, arguably Duterte and Rousseff, are indicators of a political form well  past its prime. A vote for  ISIS, Trump, Galloway and Farage on 23rd June followed by a post-Brexit Johnson ‘coup’, or indeed victory for Trump in November, would be a signifier of terminal decline.

What, though, are the potential solutions? Is anyone up for the debate?