The December Democracy Café

This was a well attended and lively meeting and two topics were discussed.  We were pleased to welcome some new members and of course welcome existing ones.   Inevitably, Brexit featured in one debate: hardly surprising as the government had just lost three votes in the Commons on the subject.  The chosen topic was;

Is it fair to have a second Referendum on the same subject?

It was perhaps whimsically suggested it would be for people who have changed their minds.  The debate quickly got onto the issue of the quality of the information supplied to the electorate.  Considerable misinformation was produced – to some extent on both sides, one thinks of George Osborn’s nonsense predictions of calamity which never came to pass – but perhaps more seriously was the range of statements made by Brexit supporters of extra money for the NHS and that the EU could ‘go whistle’ for the cost of exit and so forth.  Recent revelations concerning the clandestine use made of Facebook data and the activities of Aaron Banks which are now subject to NCA investigation.  The activities of the Russians is also a factor.

It was pointed out that the 2016 Referendum was a second one since we had one in 1975 on whether to stay in.

We quickly got onto the role of MPs and that the majority of them feel bound to something which many of them know will damage the country.  This immediately raised the issue of ‘representative v. delegate.’ Our system was based on the idea of sending someone to parliament to exercise their judgement not simply to be a delegate for the constituency.  This led directly to the comment that referendums were inappropriate in a representative democracy.  As the problems involved in Brexit become ever more prolix – the Irish border question springs immediately to mind – how are MPs to vote if they are bound by the views of their constituents made two years earlier when some of the problems were not known?  Answers on a postcard.

The younger generation was discussed and how many of them will be directly affected as various European cultural and educational opportunities are denied them (if/when we leave).  It was noted however that at two recent Salisbury for Europe events, young people were conspicuous by their absence.  Was this because of the lies and disinformation supplied during the Referendum debate?

A German national asked about the fate of EU citizens in the UK post Brexit and of course of the million and a half British nationals living and working in the EU?  In view of the treatment of the Windrush people, many will be anxious.

Why did it happen?

The question was asked: why were so many people persuaded to vote leave, sometimes against their best interests?  Was it some kind of hankering for the past, a lost world of empire and greatness and Britain ‘standing alone’?  As a nation we have given much to the world in the fields of science, culture, literature and music and this may have led many to assume a kind of superiority for ourselves, this island race.  Do we want, or need, an association with the continent?  In addition to this hankering for the past, there were those left behind by the march of progress and globalisation.  There was also the contrast between cities and rural areas someone pointed out.  These factors and others are likely to have contributed to the desire to leave.  Some respected commentators, such as Larry Elliot in the Guardian were also leavers primarily for economic reasons – sluggish European growth for example.

Added to which, politicians were all too ready to blame or denigrate the EU for a variety of ills, fairly or otherwise.  Now, when in a sense it is too late, they find it hard and unconvincing to point out the advantages: as someone said it has ‘come back to bite them.’

As we have discussed before, immigration was a major factor and at the time of the Referendum and the period before it, there were nightly films of hoards of people fleeing the war in Syria and boatloads of people crossing the Mediterranean from Libya.  There was also footage of standoffs, often violent, at various boarder areas in the Balkans and Austria.  This created an impression of a kind of invasion despite the fact that few of these people made it to our shores.  There was also the ‘jungle’ at Calais and Dunkirk.

It was suggested that there was a kind of world wide phenomenon of protest and revolting against … well it depended on which country.  This very day (December 8th) there were more riots and clashes in Paris connected with the gilets jaunes movement, a protest at one level against fuel prices rises but more generally about the imbalance of taxes between rich and poor in France.  Part of the protests were against the neoliberal policies adopted, in the UK since the time of Margaret Thatcher, and at different times in continental countries.  Although belief in these policies have taken a knock since the financial crisis of 2008, whether we remain of leave the EU is unlikely to make much difference.

But back to the question: how someone asked, will a Brexit voter feel if a second referendum overturned the first Referendum?  Since the decision was not solely on the facts – true or false – of the vote itself but a form of protest by the ‘left behinds’, would they not feel cheated?  Could we in fact have a repeat of the poll tax riots?  Not everyone present was convinced by this.

Part 2

After a break we discussed the second topic which was ID cards and their possible effect on democracy.

The worry which unsurprisingly surfaced was the issue of privacy.  With increasing

My Identity card

concerns about law and order, was it wise to give the government yet more powers to intrude into our lives?  This led us to the question: should the police have the power to demand one (by stopping someone in the street for example)?  Several people thought that it was important that the police had a just cause to ask for this.  This echoes the long running argument concerning stop and search which has caused so much problem and strife.

There were several who thought ID cards were a good idea and facilitated life in many different ways.  One person, who had lived in Belgium for many years, found it to be very useful, knowing straightaway which of the two languages she preferred for example.  It was however more part of the culture of many European countries where state control was accepted as normal.  It was used in Germany for administrative purposes only.

One reason for its reduction is the belief it will reduce crime.  Although this wasn’t mentioned at the meeting, one point made when the idea of ID was first mooted, was that all those in the Madrid bombings all had identity cards.  Everyone had an Identity Card during the war as part of the emergency regulations (and I attach a picture of my own Identity card from that time for interest) but ended some time after the conclusion of hostilities.  It first arose in the post war era following the football hooligan problems.  The problem then was a distrust of the police and the idea was never followed through.  It has popped up from time to time subsequently but a series of high profile government IT failures meant there was no enthusiasm for it.

We were reminded however that we have increasing IT control by default as each day passes.  More and more activities are digitally controlled with things like QR codes and other technologies so that we are, in effect, already being monitored without us being aware of it.  We can be tracked via our mobile phones whether they are turned on or not.  We are becoming more aware of ‘big data’ and the likes of Google and Facebook intruding into our lives.

We were also reminded – in the context of police searches – that ‘not everyone is a middle class white person’ and that many in our society have reason to fear the police.  There is a worry that ID cards will actually increase crime because those who are below the radar so to speak – immigrants, fruit pickers hired by gang masters, people in the sex industry – may be less willing to come forward to report crime if they are unable to produce a card.

It was agreed a crucial issue was one of trust of the authorities.  The state is not always benign and revelations about police informers infiltrating legitimate protest groups and even having children whilst undercover, was an example.  Could we ever fully trust the authorities?  A question left unresolved.

We had a quick vote at the end of the debate:

  • In favour of ID cards: 8
  • against: 10
  • abstentions/undecided 2

So the nays had it.

Two very interesting debates and both in their different ways, centred on the trust, or rather the lack of it, we have in those who run the country.

Peter Curbishley