Friday, May 27, 2016

Commandments Eleven and Twelve

OK, I am going to add another couple of commandments for conducting a referendum campaign with dignity and respect ...

11) Thou shall not drag dead people into the argument based  on a guess of how they would vote or on misleading quotes. 

I think I shall scream next time someone on either side of the EU referendum debate claims Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, or any other dead political hero as a supporter of their side unless they can produce a verifiable quote which puts the opinions of the individual concerned beyond doubt.

Mrs T voted for and emphatically supported the "Remain" side in the previous referndum and, as Prime Minister, used a three-line whip to force the Single European Act through the House of Commons. It is entirely possible that she would take an entirely different view if she were alive today, but sadly she isn't so nobody knows.

Winston Churchill is on record as expressing the opinion that a United States of Europe would be a very good idea, but at that time he expected Britain to be a friend and ally of that entity rather than a member. Nobody can be certain what his views on the current referendum would be: I suspect they might not be all that different from those of his grandson but we just don't know.

Some of those praying Winston Churchill's name in vain have circulated an inaccurate quote, which purports to be an extract from a speech made in the House of Commons on 11th May 1953, when actually it is two separate quotes ripped from their entirely different contexts and stitched together. The first three sentences came from an article he wrote in an American magazine 23 year before that and the last sentence was taken from an argument with De Gaulle in 1944!

Would it not ne more useful to look at the issues facing Britain and the EU today?


12) If someone is campaigning hard for one side, thou shalt not make silly allegations that they really support the other.

I thought at first that the Prime Minister's advisor Steve Hilton's intervention in the EU referendum debate might produce some interesting insights - until the moment I read his suggestion that David Cameron is some sort of closet Brexit supporter who would be campaigning to leave if he were not Prime Minister.

I thought that nobody else could possibly take this seriously, but then saw Michael Portillo doing so on TV. I am quite astonished that intelligent men like Portillo and Hilton can say such a thing with a straight face.

Despite the way the Leave campaign seems determined to blow the referendum, I think there is enough innate irritation with the EU in a majority of the electorate, and detestation of the organisation in a smaller but very vocal minority, that all David Cameron would have had to do if he wanted Britain to leave would have been to be neutral. If there is a Remain vote, it will be because the Prime Minister campaigned for it. And as a result his position should there be a leave vote will be difficult. In the circumstances it makes no sense to suggest that he really supports Leave.

The more sophisticated version of Steve Hilton's point - that being PM gives David Cameron a unique perspective and if he were not Prime Minister he would take a different view - is not quite as ridiculous but IMHO still seriously overstates the case.

Cameron was arguing for a reformed EU, but not to actually leave the organisation, when he was Leader of the Opposition, during his short time as a shadow cabinet member, when he was a backbench MP, and when he was trying to become an MP. Cameron has been described with some justice as an accidental European who has become less Eurosceptic in office for pragmatic reasons, but even before the start of this process he had never supported actually leaving the EU.

For very similar reasons, I think it is unhelpful to suggest that Boris Johnson does not really support the "Leave" cause for which he is now campaigning. It is entirely possible - indeed, likely - that he has changed his mind on aspects of the argument.

Well, if Boris has changed his mind, people are allowed to do that.

But the possibility is not trival that, if it is a close vote, his campaigning to leave might make the difference which actually causes Britain to leave, and the effort he has put into fighting for that cause would make that all the more possible. It is beyond all reason that he would do that if he really wanted to remain.

Sometimes it seems appropriate to apply Occam's Razor and assume people really support the side for which they are campaigning,

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