Guidance following the EU referendum result

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I was asked by the group The 48% to write a piece for the UK’s MPs following the EU referendum of 23rd June 2016.

So, I did.

The piece has now been sent to every UK MP, and will be sent to every one of the continent’s MEPs in the next few days (today being 1st July 2016).

So, I thought I would share it with you here:

We understand that, like almost everyone in the UK, you have been able to think of little other than the result of Thursday’s referendum on our country’s membership of the EU, and the likely effects of that vote.

And after deep consideration, it is with some regret that we must ask you to prevent the initiation of Article 50.

We have not arrived at this conclusion lightly. The will of the people is not something which should be ignored – though that is not what we ask you to do here – and as representatives of the people we do understand that you correctly feel a responsibility to carry out that will.

But there are a number of reasons why this course of action – not leaving the EU – is not only what is best for the country, but is also a fully justified decision for you to take.

First of all, the referendum was always held not as a legally-binding decision, but as an advisory plebiscite, to guide and inform the Houses of Parliament of the mood of the people, rather than as a direct and irresistible instruction from the nation to its politicians.

This may seem a small point, but it is not: if – as we all accept – those who refuse to vote in an election understand that the decision taken by others is the decision by which they must abide, then certainly those who vote in a referendum must abide by its rules: to demand the suggestion from an advisory vote must be followed to the letter is an unreasonable demand.

Of course, this alone should not be enough to convince you not to do what the referendum requests, it is simply to remind you that the decision on whether or not to leave the EU has not been made: it is for you, as representatives of the people, to make such a decision. The referendum must feed into that decision, but so must your own expertise and judgement: that, after all, is the responsibility for which you are paid.

Secondarily, the result itself, as Boris Johnson, the Leave campaign’s de facto leader has publicly conceded, is hardly overwhelming.

We should also note here that Nigel Farage, the man whose career has been built on ensuring this vote took place, stated in his (unnecessary) concession speech that the loss in the referendum for Leave would not mean the end of ‘the fight’. The same man specifically stated in May this year that he would ‘fight’ for a second referendum in the wake of an ‘inconclusive’ 52-48 victory for Remain: Thursday’s vote ended 51.9-48.1 in Leave’s favour.

There is agreement even from the Leave campaign that a close result should not be accepted as conclusive, and we feel the result could hardly have been closer.

Equally, statistically-speaking, the result was inconclusive by definition. The margin of error allowed in statistical modelling would mean any experiment or model which produced such a result would have to be re-run many times before anything close to acceptance and credence was given to it, and we should also note that in this purely literal sense, the result indicates at least as much as the ‘will of the people’ that on another day, we could expect that the outcome would have been different.

Of course, the vote was held on the day on which it took place, but we advise that decisions of such national – and international – importance should not be based solely upon such an outcome.

Thirdly, the vote itself. Slightly more than 17m people voted to Leave the EU, while slightly over 16m voted for the UK to Remain. But there are 62 million people in the UK. If you are to accept the result of this referendum as the sole factor in whether we leave or remain as members of the EU, you will be accepting that the correct, sensible and just course of action is to allow the (certainly heartfelt and strong) desire of 17m people to dictate to 45 million others the future of the UK, of the continent and to a certain extent the world.

We should note here also that while some 28 per cent of people simply did not vote (and so must be regarded as being content to leave others to advise the government), there were many others who could not and who arguably should.

For example, there were many thousands of UK nationals living in overseas territories – most in the EU itself – whose votes were cast but unheard because of problems with the postal voting system; others never received their polling cards in time to cast their postal vote. In both cases these are people who by the rules of the referendum were entitled to vote, but who were prevented from doing so. This does not add legitimacy to the idea that the government must accept the outcome of the vote as a conclusive order from the people.

A large number of young people who urgently wished to vote were also unable to. This is not the time or place to cavil over the electoral rules set for this referendum (even though the immediate precedent set by the Scottish independence referendum had been that in cases of unusual importance, 16- and 17-year-olds could be offered a voice) but it does underline the fact that even just outside those legally-entitled to vote sit a large number of UK citizens who overwhelmingly support the UK Remaining in Europe.

You have received guidance from (some) who could vote, but your responsibility goes beyond that: it is to the UK and all of its people. Please do bear in mind that the vote is – as all public plebiscites must be – only a limited cross-section of views on the issue across the country: your job is to ensure that this cross-section is part, not all, of what you base your decision on.

Fourthly, the vote itself reveals not only widespread division – and effectively that the UK’s population as a whole has not made up its mind – but serious constitutional crises ahead.

Not only is Scotland almost certain to leave the Union if Article 50 is initiated, there are signs that Northern Ireland may seriously consider its own position.

But the matter goes further: all four of the UK states’ capital cities voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining members of the EU, as did most other major centres of population: Birmingham; Bristol; Liverpool; Manchester; Glasgow to name but a few.

The reason that we note this is not to ‘threaten’ crisis: it is that crisis is already here. We care deeply about the UK as well as its position as a part of the EU, and we do not wish to see it fall to pieces as a result of an advisory referendum. We implore you to factor the UK’s future existence into your decision.

It is also impossible to communicate this message to you without touching upon some other, inter-connected, factors.

You will be as uncomfortably aware as we are that the Leave campaign made a series of promises – most notably that £350m per week would be spent on the NHS; that we could ‘control our borders’; and that we would ‘reduce immigration’ if we were to leave the EU. In the immediate aftermath of the result’s announcement, the Leave campaign’s leading figures have announced that none of those three promises will be kept.

Though we do understand that in elections people say things which they are later unable to live up to, we must seriously question whether a vote cast based on the three central and most-often repeated promises can still be considered valid if those who attracted that vote and made those promises then withdraw each promise immediately after winning those votes?

The word ‘democracy’ is easy to use, and has (understandably) been used often by the Leave campaign since Friday morning. But we must request that you consider whether winning votes by making promises and withdrawing those promises immediately after the result is announced can truly be part of any model of true democracy?

Connected to this is the worrying fact that many of those who voted to Leave have since stated that they were mistaken to do so, and expressed a wish that they could vote again, this time differently.

We do not, here, write to you about our own reasons for wishing to Remain. Those are important, and include the UK’s place in the world, its attitude to and experience of people from different nations and cultures from our own, our financial welfare (and that of our children and grandchildren), the opportunities granted to us by our membership of the EU, the fact that the mere threat of Leaving has caused a collapse in the value of our currency, the fact that we believe the UK is a state which should care about and be engaged in wider international issues – that it and its people are better as a result of engagement and the benefits it brings.

But while they are important, we are not campaigning to win a referendum here. We are simply reminding you that whatever your – and our – view on the UK’s membership of the EU may be, this referendum, for a number of reasons, should not be the only thing you consider when making a decision about what to do next.

Your decision is of course your own. But we would also remind you that you were elected to make this choice; that you have greater access to the realities of our situation than any member of the general public; and that a range of options remain open to you, including a re-run of the referendum, a General Election or an outright vote to Remain or to Leave. That decision is yours. It is literally what we elected you to do, and what you are paid to do.

The referendum was an advisory exercise. It is almost literally (and actually statistically) inconclusive. The major piece of information that we can gain from it is that the public – as a whole – simply does not know whether it wishes to leave the EU or remain within it, albeit that some in either camp hold strong, regularly-voiced opinions on the matter.

It was also flawed – more so than referenda need to be – and it is a decision with immediate and long-term implications for the UK’s future situation, the UK’s entire future existence, and the welfare and lives of millions across Europe, and billions across the world.

We ask that you bear all of this in mind when making your decision. The referendum is advice from the people. It should not be ignored. But neither should it be allowed to erase all other considerations. This is an enormous decision, and a real turning point in the history of our nation.

Please ensure that when making it, you do not ignore any pertinent and relevant fact, including all those set out above.

We truly hope and believe that you, as our representatives, will choose not to initiate Article 50. We believe we have outlined the reasons why you are not forced to do so.

Many thanks for reading.’

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Murder, racism and Nigel Farage: where we are today, and how we got here

Farage poster

On Thursday, a serving UK politician was assassinated for peacefully expressing a desire that the UK should treat Syrian men, women and children in a more human and humane fashion.

I know some people will already be opening their mouths to say ‘…but…’ but the facts are as follows: Thomas Mair was seen by witnesses to shoot and stab Jo Cox, an MP whose major contribution to UK national politics was to campaign for the rights of Syrian refugees to enter the UK.

He was heard by several witnesses to shout either ‘Britain First’ or ‘Put Britain first’ and had taken active part in Britain First rallies. In court this morning (Saturday 18 June) he gave his name as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.

The door has closed on any hope that he was not politically-motivated or inspired. Mair is a far-right assassin and/or terrorist. And he murdered a serving, peaceful, democratically-elected representative of the people – a woman who was also a wife, and a mother of two – because she had dared to suggest that the fifth-richest nation on Earth should welcome desperate men, women and children into its safety and security.

Now. I am pro-EU and hope we stay in, and I’m aware that what I am about to say will be criticised as ‘political point-scoring’. But I am not here to make a ‘political’ point – or even a pro-EU point. And I am not aiming to ‘score points’.

I am genuinely horrified by the fact that we live in a state where a real person, an elected politician, has been murdered for campaigning on an issue she felt strongly was important, and was a position which sought not to divide, or to vilify anyone – certainly no-one in the UK – but to encourage greater openness and acceptance between people.

I am deeply miserable – and a little worried – that the United Kingdom is now a country where ‘political debate’ so openly seeks to divide people into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ and that one result of this has been the murder of an innocent woman.

And so I think it’s time we start naming those who are responsible, and talking about what we can do about it.

And that means naming – amongst others – Nigel Farage, and the politics of horror he stands for.

Before we get into Nigel, however, it’s worth starting with Mair himself. Because I have met Nigel Farage a few times, and prior to our appearance on This Week in April, we had a short conversation.

I can definitively state that Nigel Farage does not want people to shoot one another. And – though it may seem unpleasant for me to say so – he particularly does not want white women to be shot dead.

So we must begin with Mair: no-one else has (yet) killed anyone for suggesting that it might be nice to help people not be slaughtered in Syria. He does have responsibility for his own actions, and we must not ignore that.

But that is not the whole story.

Because regardless of whether he shouted ‘Britain First’ or ‘put Britain first’ as he murdered Jo Cox, (a distinction with which Britain First has busied itself on Facebook for the last three days) Mair was a sympathiser with Britain First, and certainly took part in demonstrations with the group in Doncaster (it remains to be seen whether he was a ‘member’ and which other – if any – rallies he had taken part in).

Britain First organises rallies to make Muslim people feel uncomfortable, rides around in armoured vehicles to ‘protect’ people who never needed or asked for such protection, ‘intervenes’ (for which, read ‘acts violently and to intimidate civilians’) at mosques and never uses the word ‘Islam’ without the word ‘radical’.

Its name is extraordinarily poorly-chosen because Britain – my nation – is a place where Muslims live alongside Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jewish people, atheists, agnostics and pagans: where religious difference is far less important than the fact that we all live here and have a part to play in what makes Britain good (as well as what makes it bad).

Though I might not say we should put Britain ‘first’ (it really needn’t be a competition) I am at least confident that what I believe in is Britain – something with which Britain First appears to have a serious problem.

Britain First’s recruitment and support approach is based on two major threads – scaring people about Muslims, and seemingly pro-animal rights messages (which often turn out to be anti-Islam images) posted online. As a result, its ‘likes’ total on Facebook is not necessarily a mark of the popularity of its outlook.

And in fact, it is a fringe band of maniacs, who have taken it upon themselves to force their hopes for a UK uniform in colour and outlook, where dissent of any kind is to be met with threats and violence, upon the rest of us.

But they have increased steadily in popularity. And the reason for that is not Britain First and its members per se – they simply don’t have either the reach or the talent to be anything other than a rag-tag fringe outfit – but a wider, far better-publicised ‘political’ argument. And that’s where Nigel Farage steps in.

Because Nigel Farage is a political phenomenon. He is a former public schoolboy, former stockbroker, former Tory Party member and since 1999 an MEP who claims to be ‘anti-establishment’ and who criticises politicians for being on a ‘gravy-train’ but claims expenses on top of his own wages despite having one of the EU parliament’s worst attendance and voting records.

He has used his media access and the vast (really astonishingly large, considering it had never had an MP before 2014 and is only the fifth-largest political party in the UK) media budget of his UKIP party to drag political debate in the UK to the Right.

By this, I do not mean that he has campaigned to leave the EU, but the way in which he has done so.

Because Farage has two major messages – and both directly fed into Thursday’s political assassination of Jo Cox by the right-wing murderer Thomas Mair: that immigration; and therefore people who enter the UK, are bad for the UK; and that ‘politicians’ are self-interested, self-serving succubi, uninterested in and disconnected from the lives of ‘ordinary people’.

On migration, it’s extremely difficult to know whether Farage genuinely believes what he says, or whether he has simply decided that the best possible way to persuade people they would be better off leaving the EU is by scaring them with the prospect of a mass ‘invasion’ of the UK by people from EU member states.

If it is the former – and it may well be – he has been a particularly dedicated messenger for the most successful form of racism: arguing that foreign people threaten your welfare and in some cases your life. If it is the latter, he has done an exceptional job of being convincing.

In the last few years, UKIP and Farage have been responsible (2013) for claims that more people than actually lived in Bulgaria and Romania would come to the UK as soon as the states became members: UKIP said 29 million people would come, the combined population of the two states was 27.2 million.

During the 2014 EU Election campaign, UKIP ran a poster claiming that 26 million people in the EU were after YOUR job (with a finger handily pointing towards the readers of the posters, presumably to ensure they didn’t think the poster might be addressed to some other ‘YOU’).

In the run-up to the 2015 General Election – an election in which the active scare tactics and racism of Farage and UKIP were shown to have impacted on the wider political system: Labour showed their weakness in its face by issuing a mug promising the party would be ‘tough on immigration’, while the Conservative Party continued to show its sympathy with UKIP’s racism and xenophobia, but in more traditional, non-mug-based ways (specifically, promising an undeliverable migration ‘target’ which would in fact damage the UK if it were ever achieved) – UKIP ran posters blaming not austerity, the global economic crash or the desire of private businesses to cut expenses, but foreign people, for low wages and unemployment in the UK.

Now. At this point, I think it’s worth taking a moment to explain something. Because there may be some readers of this piece who are thinking ‘Farage isn’t a racist.’ Or ‘It’s not racism to want to protect British jobs.’

So. I know that not every UKIP supporter is a racist. I am even more certain that not every person on the Right is a racist. But it is racism to divide people by race and to claim that because of race some people in one part of the world are entitled to more and/or to better lives than others. It’s the definition of racism.

I also know that some voters for UKIP would never dream of displaying or practicising racist behaviour to anyone they met – most people are not naturally racist, and most people are actively open to meeting new people: at the very least to being polite to one another.

But that very point is an illustration of exactly what has happened here in the UK: people who are not racist by nature are voting for an openly racist political organisation and are being told by that organisation, by sections of the UK media and by one another that they are not racist and that the organisation is not racist.

I am sorry to say this, but UKIP is openly and deliberately racist. Its most successful political campaigns have been based on racist ideas and messages, and in the end, racism is about the dividing of people based on their race and geographical considerations, arguing one group is more entitled than another to a lifestyle and its trappings.

And that is the UK in which we now live: a UK in which open racism is now a successful campaign strategy and is ‘covered’ by people lining up to excuse racism, and deny that it is what it is. Most people are not racist, but more and more are being persuaded by these excuses and this covering to engage in racism, and/or to vote for racist policies.

And in recent months, it has got worse. In May this year, Nigel Farage said in a BBC interview: ‘I think it’s legitimate to say that if people feel we have lost control completely – and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the European Union – and feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step.’

Those words – an open and deliberate justification of the use of violence if ‘the people’ don’t get what they want through democratic means – are lifted straight from the playbooks of 20th century fascist groups: ‘forget about the fact that in a democracy the majority of those who vote make the decisions, and that the rules are the same for everyone; if some angry people do not manage to win a vote, they will use violence. We think that’s understandable and don’t say we didn’t warn you.’

And this absolute, terrifying disregard for peaceful political process, and justification of violence to force one small group’s political will on the rest of the nation is part of a wider trend for Farage.

Because despite his public school education and career as a stockbroker and then politician, Farage has been consistent in criticising a ‘political elite’ – people at Westminster and in Brussels who he claims (despite never having been a member of the UK parliament and having an abysmal attendance rate at the EU) to ‘know’ and ‘understand’ are ‘disconnected from’ and ‘uninterested in’ representing ‘the common man’; that politicians are deliberately incapable of representing people in the UK, and that despite the fact that UKIP has never received more than one vote in every eight cast at a General Election, he and his party are the representatives of the ‘silent majority’ of UK citizens.

Farage is not the only man responsible for this divide and rule – racially and between UK citizens (eleven-twelfths of whom have never voted UKIP), and the people they do elect to represent them. But he is its major proponent, who is regularly on TV and in newspapers delivering the message: its popularity is his responsibility.

And its result has been astonishingly caustic to the UK. Not only has it damaged democracy in general, it has also built a wall around Farage’s allies (including Britain First) through which inconvenient fact, logic and reasoning cannot pass. Because Farage and others’ argument is not even that those who disagree with him are wrong but that whether they are right or wrong is literally irrelevant: their view can and should be ignored because they ‘do not represent them’.

It is the closing down of any debate: if you agree, you are one of ‘us’. If you are not, you are something else, who does not ‘understand’ – you are different and to be ingored at best, railed against at worst.

And in June, Farage stepped up the process. On 5 June, in a statement condemned by Brexit and Remain supporters alike, the UKIP leader and MEP claimed that sex attacks on UK citizens would increase if the UK remained as an EU member.

It was a shocking statement – a clear argument that ‘foreigners’ are rapists; that if an English person commits a sex attack (and they do) that is unusual, a statistical freak event, but that it’s somehow standard behaviour for foreign people.

And of course, the condemnation of the statement by those of us – Brexiteers and Remainers alike – who still have respect for human beings around the world, went largely unheeded by Farage’s supporters, including those of Britain First, because of the argument that the opinions of critics of Farage’s fact-free racist scaremongering are not ‘wrong’ and to be disproved, but irrelevant, and to be ignored.

And on 16 June – the morning of Jo Cox’s shooting and stabbing to death by the right-wing assassin Thomas Mair – Farage posed for photos in front of his latest campaign poster: an image of men, women and children fleeing death in their homelands emblazoned with the message  ‘BREAKING POINT: The EU has failed us all’.

Many news sources have already pointed out the clear similarity to Nazi propaganda used in the run-up to World War II, and I can only add that this man – and this poster – does not represent me, does not represent my Britain and he will never be anything more than a despicable, divisive and deeply unpleasant human being attempting to create a nation of either extreme division or extraordinary and dull uniformity, neither of which I would want to be part of.

But the point is also that the poster’s message was yet another warning of emergency: ‘foreigners’ are after YOUR job; ‘foreigners’ cause unemployment; the UK is at BREAKING POINT and no-one other than you and the others we agree with are able or willing to see it.

It was a clear call for action, a demand for those lucky few who understand the ‘crisis’ to do something.

It was not a call for a man to shoot and stab to death a politician. But it is ridiculous to pretend that it – and the wider arguments of racism, division and emergency continually shouted by Farage; the pretence that if only people understood or cared they too would be panicking and preventing foreigners from entering the UK under fear of collapse and/or rape – did not play a part in Mair’s act.

The United Kingdom is now a state in which innocent and peaceful democratically-elected politicians can be murdered not for breaking laws, not for preaching hatred, but for arguing for desperate men, women and children to be better assisted by the world’s fifth-richest state.

Nigel Farage is not the only person to blame for that – and as noted already, Farage certainly does not want white women to be killed on England’s streets.

But Farage is the major carrier of the messages that foreigners are dangerous to the UK, that the UK is under attack and needs to be defended, that politicians are selfish and do not represent the UK’s best interests unless they agree with him, and that therefore anyone who attempts to use logic or reason to address his concerns can and should be ignored.

Thomas Mair heard that message, and he responded.

The UK – in part thanks to Farage – has fallen a very, very long way. It will take us a long time to climb back up. But for those of us who do believe in Britain, we must start now, not by dismissing those who fear the EU and foreign people, but by engaging and embracing them.

Opposing Farage is our only option, and it is the right thing to do. But demonising those his vile message has seduced is not. We can, and must, reopen communication with those people. The alternative is a further fall, violence, mayhem, more damage to our democracy and a nation in which no-one can feel comfortable again.