Brexit: Tugging at Europe’s Loose Threads

In the recent Austrian Presidential Election, a far-right candidate – Norbert Hofer – came within a hair’s breadth of winning the Presidency. This moment represented just the latest evidence of a rise in populist and nationalistic attitudes that have arisen in the past decade across Europe, and arguably, worldwide. Some celebrated that the winning candidate was a left-wing independent, but that was small consolation indeed: the fact that the combined anti-fascist vote barely topped 50% is the frightening new reality in much of Europe.

My anti-fascist activism dates back almost four decades; I thought I had a stronger handle on the nature of fascism than most people. But, like most people alive today, I hadn’t really witnessed the phenomenon in the flesh. I had been taught that fascism was an exclusively right-wing political phenomenon; but it isn’t strictly right-wing, nor especially political. Fascism is a cultural force that unites many disparate conservative strands of society. It is, above all, a backlash against liberal values, most of all those of Liberty, Equality and Reason. It is generally kept at bay by the fact that usually, such groupings have little in common with each other.

Politics has become increasingly polarised as activists abandon the centre for the left and right poles. But in most cases, this does not mean a rise in diversity of opinion: in fact, once you strip away differences in presentation, left and right are often found in agreement with each other, and especially on the issues that most matter. Most of all, nationalism is soaring.

The EU is a remarkable internationalist institution, and its greatest achievement has been to diminish the importance of the borders between 28 European countries that have long histories of enmity and bloodshed. Borders are a natural response to external threats – whether real or imagined, but they also provide obstacles to the movement of people, goods, services and money. The erosion of Europe’s borders has been one of the greatest liberal triumphs in human history, granting unprecedented liberty to 500 million people, and creating an unprecedented Peace on the world’s most fractious continent.

Amidst such dramatic change, there have been inevitable losers as well as winners: low-skilled workers, in particular, have seen their incomes somewhat eroded since Poles and others from eastern Europe gained access to the British labour market a decade ago (two people told me at the time that their incomes had noticeably and rapidly fallen: one a bricklayer, the other a prostitute).

But EU winners easily outnumber the losers. For example, thanks to the EU, unemployed people have been able to flee southern Europe since the financial crash, and reduce pressure on those countries, which would otherwise see even higher unemployment and social problems. And this has been to the benefit of the economically stronger countries: this is easily visible here on London’s skyline, where a flood of incoming building workers is helping remedy the housing shortage. When many or most of them eventually return to eastern and southern Europe, the new housing stock will remain, a lasting legacy.

Yet the prevailing sentiments on both left and right are increasingly nationalistic. The right’s hostility is primarily directed at the people moving across borders. The Tory-led Brexit campaign, now led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, has become overtly anti-immigration in recent days. Meanwhile, the pro-Brexit left makes friendlier noises towards immigrants, but attacks free trade instead. But the free labour market can’t function without free movement of people, and mass migration would stall without trade across borders. Furthermore, thanks to digital technology, small businesses are able to trade across borders as easily as big ones (in fact, the EU’s single market has simplified that). So the left’s hostility to “neoliberalism” and the right’s brutish anti-immigration messages both end up attacking the same thing: open borders. And they find the same ultimate solution: stronger borders, with all the policing, cost and state intrusion that those require.

There are few moments, in practise, that could neatly unite nationalists across the spectrum, but the EU Referendum is one, and so it marks a uniquely dangerous moment for Britain and Europe. The vote on 23rd June will unite anti-immigration rightists with protectionist leftists. And for good measure, it will unite both of those camps with every vandalistic misanthrope in the country: we all enjoy the chance to smash stuff, just for fun, and here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to smash the biggest thing ever. Some people, whatever their political leanings, will be voting Brexit, for the same reason that some people kick ants’ nests.

We’ve been told endlessly that Brexit will damage the economy, and doubtless it will, to some extent. But the political ramifications are far more significant, longer-lasting and unpredictable. A rise in anti-British sentiment would inevitably follow: can anyone imagine that a likely outflow of Spanish, Italian and French workers would not be met by expulsions of British workers and residents from those countries? Do we expect foreign electorates to be more accommodating than we are prepared to be? (Just as I was preparing to publish this post, the Spanish PM was reported to have threatened the right of two million British ex-pats to live in Spain).

This is nationalism: a race to the bottom. Will Europe cut off its nose to spite its face? If 1914 and 1939 are anything to go by, then yes, without a doubt. In the frenzy of nationalism, Europe will happily cut off its own face and then set fire to it (apologies for the trampled metaphor).

America’s great nationalist hope, Donald Trump, has clearly indicated his relish for Brexit. He (and this is not coincidental) plans to fly in to the UK the day after the referendum, and (if we vote Leave) will doubtless be delighted to gloat about Europe’s pending break-up, adding fear and uncertainty to Europe’s wounds. Brexit would inevitably be followed by copycat stupidity from other EU nations; the EU as we know it may well unravel, millions of people could be forced back into their home countries, economies may stall or nosedive, and the longer term political and economic consequences are impossible to guess.

It’s hard to sell anyone the status quo, especially at a time of anti-everything cynicism, but that’s what a Remain vote represents. 70 years of peace has been a pretty big prize, but few people alive today understand the significance of that. To understand what Europe did to itself (and the rest of the world) in the 1940s, I recommend reading All Hell Broke Loose by Max Hastings. If people understood the real, almost unbelievable horrors of WWII, would we really take even a small step back in that direction?

This is what the Brexit crowd call “Project Fear”. But we have the right to be frightened, and we should be frightened. They can’t say what would happen to our economy, our continent or our way of life post-Brexit. For that reason alone, we should Remain in the EU.

How the PC Nationalist Left Is Driving Donald Trump to Victory

Donald Trump
NOPE

As things stand today, Donald Trump looks set to become the Republican candidate. I have to confess, I dismissed this possibility until fairly late last year. When Twitter and Facebook followers suggested I updated my Bush avatar to a Trump one, I rejected the suggestion on the basis that by now, we’d barely remember who Trump was. I’ve now remedied my mistake.

Trump has played his hand perfectly, and rallied a strong base consisting primarily of white, working class voters. He boasts of self-funding his campaign, and this is kinda true; but in reality, his campaign has been ultra-cheap, thanks to endless free publicity from those who hate and fear him. While I generally enjoy sharing stories about crazy right-wing politicians doing crazy shit, I’ve backed off in Trump’s case, because that’s what he wants us to do. He delights in being called a fascist, a Nazi or a new Hitler: that’s exactly how his PR campaign works. It’s not that most of his supporters actually want to elect a new Hitler: it’s that they delight in watching shrieking middle-class “liberals” predict the end of the world every time Trump does something deliberately Nazi-like.

The left has run out of language with which to make Trump look bad. If shouting “FASCISM!” 99 times didn’t work, it’s unlikely a hundredth will make any difference. Trump cleverly got the fascist accusations out of the way early. Now he can do anything he wants, and his supporters recognise it for what it is: he’s taking the piss out of the politically-correct left, and they love it. He dangles left-wing activists like puppets. He says or does something outrageous, they respond, his supporters roar their appreciation. Donald Trump could appear at a rally in Nazi uniform and a Hitler moustache, and his supporters would laugh and cheer, because they get the joke.

I’ve predicted all this repeatedly, ever since (perhaps 5 years ago) I found I could no longer stomach what the left has become. Identity politics is fascism distilled and made palatable for a new era. The new left has demanded that language be policed in order that no “oppressed” group be offended in any way. It has insisted in labelling successful, middle-class black people oppressed, while telling poor white people they are privileged. No wonder Trump’s support comes from the latter group. They hate the sneering, privileged elitists who have insisted on calling them privileged, and who can blame them?

So it’s the new left, not the right, that’s responsible for reintroducing fascist methods into modern politics. Identity politics and political correctness are not progressive, liberal or democratic ideas. They are ideas for dividing people by race and gender; for creating false definitions of privilege and oppression; for destroying equality and solidarity, which were the keystones of the old left. Trump is surfing a tsunami created by the collapse of liberal values. Political correctness created taboos that The Donald has taken the greatest pleasure in demolishing.

But while his opponents have protested over his populist grandstanding, they have largely ignored the really dangerous part of his message: nationalism. While most commentators have focused on his more outrageous outbursts, they have ignored his core message, which is an anti-free trade one. And here is the true menace in modern politics: Trump’s attitudes to free trade are shared by Bernie Sanders, and by Jeremy Corbyn. A recent Guardian article pointed out that some Sanders supporters would rather vote for Trump than Clinton, quoting one supporter: “Bernie and Trump agree a lot on healthcare, Iraq war, campaign finance and trade. I really want to move on to something new, new ideas from outside the box. Maybe Donald Trump can provide that.”

How can the left stop a populist menace from rising to power when they often agree with him on the important issues?

Defence of free trade has been left to the centre-ground; but this is shrinking as politics becomes more polarised. Meanwhile, the extremes are growing stronger. People object when I compare the rise of Corbyn and Sanders to that of Trump, Farage and Le Pen, but they shouldn’t. On this most vital of issues, they are all on the same side.

The huge fact of the past couple of decades is this: between 1990 and 2010, almost a billion people were lifted out of poverty. This era has been mankind’s greatest, but in times of rapid change, there are losers as well as winners. In this case, the losers have been the lowest-skilled workers in America, Europe and Japan. And it is exactly these people who flock to Trump and UKIP, just as exactly these people flocked to Hitler and Mussolini. Free trade is, understandably, a dirty word to those workers who have seen manufacturing shift to poorer countries; naturally, they want things back as they were, even though that can never happen. But it is the intellectual bankruptcy of the left that is making way for the rise of the populist right.

The progressive left – to which I’ve pledged allegiance for most of the past four decades – is on its deathbed. We remaining progressives need to help it on its way, because it has become the lubricant for the rise of a new fascist era. Those who still think politics is divided into left and right fail to understand what is going on; and those on the left who refuse to attack Donald Trump’s anti-free trade message will be the ones who bring him to power. He probably won’t ban Muslims, or build a Mexican wall, or deport millions of illegal immigrants; but he will try to introduce a new era of protectionism and nation-vs-nation disunity. And we know how that tends to end up.

Remove The Borders In Your Mind

Europe is unique. Nowhere else on Earth has so many markedly different cultures crammed into such a small space. Europe’s jagged coastlines, numerous, high mountain ranges and broad rivers have fostered huge diversity. In recent centuries, this has been largely to the continent’s benefit. Fierce competition between European tribes and nations spurred technological development at breakneck pace, which led to the development of modern science, the industrial revolution and (for a while) to the global dominance of European empires.

This, of course, comes with a big downside. Europe is prone to spasms of nationalistic feeling, which tend not to end well. The last big eruption, ending in 1945, left Europeans, yet again, determined to put an end to all this nonsense. The postwar European project, culminating in the creation of the EU, was a huge, liberal exercise in knitting together countries with long histories of enmity. It is an attempt to gradually eradicate nationalism from the continent and provide us with a more peaceful future.

But 1945 was a long time ago. Those who were adults in that year are all over 90 now. Generation by generation, Europeans have become increasingly seduced (yet again) by the idea that internationalism is not necessarily such a good thing; that nationalism, done right, can be a force for good. So, once again, European nationalism is taken from the back of the wardrobe, dusted off, and accessorised to make it look like a brand new outfit.

So in some ways, we’re in a situation similar to the 1930s. But in the 30s, there was a clear ideological choice to make between left and right. As right-wing nationalism blossomed across Europe, so the left-wing opposition became an international struggle against fascism. WWII, though a national struggle, was also an international one, which united internationalist socialists with national armies. My left-wing Jewish grandfather saw his time in the RAF as a fight against fascism, not a battle for British supremacy.

Today, the divide between right and left is increasingly a cultural, rather than political one. The left, a progressive force in the 1930s, is today a defender of the status quo. From left to right, the argument has been reduced to: Which form of social democracy works best? What proportion of GDP should be devoted to state spending? How much involvement should private companies have in state-provided services? And with no clear ideological divide, nationalism has infected the entire political spectrum. Sadly and dangerously, European politics is becoming a decision about which kind of nationalism one prefers.

The old, ugly nationalism is becoming rampant. In predictable places – Hungary, Denmark and France (for example) – anti-foreigner sentiment is once again fashionable. But this is more than matched by left-wing nationalism, which in many ways is more worrying. From painful experience, Europe understands the dangers of the old, xenophobic nationalism of the right, but that not of the left. Many on the left will respond that left-wing nationalism isn’t nasty like the right-wing variety. But intent is irrelevant. What matters is outcome. If the EU unravels, along with free movement of people, goods and services, who cares whether it’s done under the pretext of progressivism or xenophobia?

So: Scotland has become a nationalist one-party state, under the auspices of fighting for “fairness” and “anti-austerity”. The SNP, once a right-of-centre force, has reinvented itself as a left-wing one. It dangles a social democratic dream in order to achieve a separatist, regressive aim. It proposes contradictory policies and ideas to maximise its populist appeal: thus, it doesn’t want laws made in London, but is fine with those from Brussels; thus it rejects English rule, but embraces the Royal Family; thus, it invokes a false history of colonial oppression under the English, whereas in reality Scots enthusiastically participated in the British Empire. Seeing a sea of national flags waved in Scotland on election night in May conjured up Europe’s darkest past, not its progressive future.

In reality, the SNP’s independence calculations were cynical in the extreme: they realised that, with oil above $100 per barrel, Scotland would be better off keeping its oil revenues to itself, rather than redistribute. This is the opposite of progressivism: successful unions (whether the UK, EU or US) redistribute from wealthy regions to poor ones. Scottish nationalists want to keep it all for themselves. Since the referendum, oil prices have crashed. If it had gained independence, Scotland would be forced to implement worse austerity than England, or face bankruptcy. SNP voters should be outraged that they nearly committed such a gross error under Alex Salmond’s guidance, but they don’t appear to have noticed. Nationalistic fervour outweighs economic and political common sense.

Similarly, Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, and resents sending its hard-earned money to Madrid. Catalans are set for a confrontation with the national government as nationalist populism has surged. In reality, Catalan nationalists resent redistribution of their money to poor regions like Andalucia. This isn’t “progressive nationalism”, it’s good, old-fashioned dislike of poor, “lazy” southerners packaged as a heroic independence struggle.

Anti-EU sentiment has surged on the British left, most notably in this year’s Corbyn Labour victory. So, bizarrely, Labour’s leader agrees with UKIP’s that the EU is a bad thing, while the Tory leader is on the same side as the Lib Dem and Green leaders (underscoring the point that left and right are increasingly blurring into one). Labour still officially maintains a pro-EU stance, but with its most senior figures now being eurosceptics, how effectively will it fight for a pro-EU vote in the coming referendum? While Corbyn’s win won’t take Labour close to power, it has certainly edged us closer to Brexit.

The Corbyn position on the EU (like many of his policies) is deeply childlike: he says the EU is “like a free market“. Which, of course, in part, it is. What he doesn’t explain is why this is a bad thing, or what his alternative might be; the very word “market” is supposed to conjure up horror, without the need for further explanation. I remember this position from my own days on the far-left: we took the meaningless position that we were internationalists, but couldn’t support the EU because it was capitalist internationalism, not the good socialist variety. Owen Jones, the bellwether of the moron-left, has predictably taken an anti-EU position based on the left’s complete misunderstanding of what has been happening in Greece.

The Corbynites say they support the free movement of people, but not free markets. So do they think Polish plumbers should come to the UK but be prevented from selling their labour? Should Spanish companies be able to build British factories, but not sell their products to Germany? The left rails against unskilled jobs moving to China, while ignoring the huge rise in Chinese living standards these jobs have created. This is xenophobia disguised as support for British workers: we can ignore poverty in China or India, or blame it on ‘neoliberalism’. In this attitude, the far-left is virtually indistinguishable from the far-right.

Borders are obstacles to progress; there is no progressive nationalism, in Scotland or anywhere else. In the face of surging inward-looking nationalist sentiment, we need to re-imagine how borders can be dissolved, bit by bit, and this requires three unbreakable principles:

  1. Free movement of ideas: in other words, an implacable opposition to state censorship. China carefully blocks dangerous foreign ideas using its Great Firewall, under heavy criticism from the West; and yet there are powerful forces lobbying for site blocking here in the UK, under the auspices of “counter-terrorism” or “protecting children from porn”. Both left and right are guilty of failing to defend free expression.
  2. Free movement of goods and services: here, the left is often guilty of the deepest conservatism. Global poverty is shrinking faster than at any time in history. The rest of the world is catching up with the West; rather than celebrate this, the nationalist left focuses on economic stagnation in the wealthiest countries, and ignores progress everywhere else. To oppose global free trade is to attempt to disconnect the world’s poorest from the global economy.
  3. Free movement of people: this is the toughest objective of all, and will not be seen in our lifetimes: but it’s an objective towards which we can continually move. We cannot entirely lift border controls while there are such disparities of wealth and poverty in the world. Thanks to the EU’s removal of trade barriers, wealth was spread across the continent. As a result, Europe was able to introduce free movement – something that would have seemed like a utopian dream a few decades ago. The same thing can, and will, happen globally, in less time than we might today imagine.

There is no economic reason why borders cannot continue to be dissolved. step-by-step, worldwide: the reasons are political: the old left and right parties are collapsing into nationalism and xenophobia. The one European hero of open borders, Angela Merkel, is coming under attack domestically for her pro-immigration stance. As the world becomes richer and more interlinked, the need for borders diminishes. The only obstacle to creating a borderless planet is the one in our minds.

UKIP: Playing Nazi Bingo

Fascism became a little bit discredited after the whole holocaust thing. Britain’s fascist movement had never got off to a great start, but after the second world war, Oswald Moseley’s attempt to come back (with blacks rather than Jews as a new, improved scapegoat), was never likely to succeed.

But the far-right has had a long time to evolve since the 1940s. It has regularly reappeared in new configurations. Most people tend to associate fascism with street thuggery, but these gangs are only the most visible part of the far-right (and the section most likely to cause panic among the middle classes). Hitler came to power with the support of the conservative middle classes, and corporate finance. If fascism is ever to be respectable again, its core constituency won’t consist of angry young white working class men, but the conservative middle classes.

Real British fascism is corporate power cloaked in ultra-conservative values designed to lure the most middle of middle Englanders. It attracts those who don’t think too much about politics, but when they do, they think society has changed too much, too quickly. They yearn for the Britain that their parents told them about when they were growing up; a largely mythical Christian Britain; where naughty youngsters were given a clip round the ear by the local bobby; where gays didn’t exist; and of course, where everyone spoke English, and everybody was white.

A real fascist party has two layers of policies: one set designed to recruit votes from the bigoted, social conservative, and another designed to raise finance from wealthy individuals and companies. The British National Party (BNP) looked, for a while, like it may be the first “respectable” fascist party in the UK. In 1993, it caused shock by winning the first ever far-right council seat, in East London. For over a decade, it looked like a genuine threat, but it has faded in recent years, and few people think of it as a mainstream party.

The English Defence League (EDL) attempted to fill the far-right vacuum, but it manifested as a working class street movement, so alienated middle class conservatives, and could never be taken seriously by corporate backers. Now, the vacuum has instead been filled by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) – and this time, for the first time since Mosley, far-right politics seem to have found a place in the mainstream.

Many low-information voters (to borrow an American term for morons) get a thrill from UKIP’s populist positions: leaving the European Union (because it costs money, doesn’t it?), cutting immigration (because we’re “full”, right?) and attacking benefits (lazy scroungers…) are all designed to appeal to the Daily Mail’s core, nasty, constituency of people who worry that somehow, somewhere, someone is having a better life than they are.

The problem for any fascist organisation trying to present itself as mainstream is that it becomes increasingly hard to keep candidates “on message”. UKIP has attracted fascists to its membership, and this is reflected in a number of extreme outbursts from its candidates. Their anti-immigrant line has somehow morphed to include attacks on British Muslims – to the extent that the EDL are backing UKIP in elections, and are clearly pitching to become their thuggish wing, just as the SA “Brownshirts” became the street enforcers for the Nazi party.

I recently played a game of “fascist bingo” on Twitter when I was encouraged to see if candidates ticked all the standard far-right boxes. Anti-immigration (standard fare to attract racists-who-aren’t-racist)? Check! Muslim-baiting? Check! Gays? The party is opposed to gay marriage (it’s hard to see what that has to do with opposing the European Union) and on cue, UKIP candidate John Sullivan was recently caught applauding Russian attacks on gay rights, and calling for more physical exercise in schools as a cure for gayness. Check!

To win a fascist bingo game though, we need evidence of hatred for Jews and the disabled. On cue, here comes UKIP candidate Anne-Marie Crampton with an anti-Semitic outburst that any Nazi would be proud of, raking up the anti-Semitic hoax “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and blaming Zionists for the second world war and the Holocaust (rather than those poor, misunderstood, European Christians who tend to get blamed for it). Check! And the disabled? Google came to my aid and found me Geoffrey Clark, who called for compulsory abortions of disabled foetuses. HOUSE!

UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage has succeeded in presenting far-right politics as palatable, to a greater extent than anyone since the second world war. He has attracted support from the racist right of the Tory party – those people who see David Cameron as a dangerous leftie. UKIP reaped a protest vote in last week’s local elections, largely from people who had little idea what they actually stood for. What is lacking from British politics is an active opposition to fascist ideologies; Labour’s capitulation by “accepting the immigration problem” leaves a landscape devoid of an anti-fascist force, and plays into the hands of the far-right.

With the BNP and EDL approaching the status of “laughing-stock”, UKIP are the ones to watch; their strong showing in the elections may be a flash in the pan, but they have cleverly divided the Conservative Party, and if the Tories panic, they may shift rightwards. In the long-term, that way lies irrelevancy, as demonstrated by the US Republicans, who embraced a racist electoral strategy in a nation where racism was in slow decline.

Put in perspective, the local election results demonstrated that a quarter of voters in the most conservative parts of the country will respond to a bigoted, populist message. The whitest parts of the nation are the most afraid of immigration. That’s not so surprising, though it is disappointing. The UKIP result gives little reason to panic, but it’s a reminder that “British tolerance” is not a given. Tolerance had to be fought for and won, but no battle ever stays won; victories need to be defended. Now which political party will take a stand against the rise of fascist values?

Moronic Referendums

Last week, the most comprehensive (and expensive) deal so far was put together by the European Union to save Greece (not to mention the rest of us) from uncontrolled default. Billed (naturally) as the deal that would solve all of Europe’s problems, it was inevitably oversold; yet it was a serious and worthy effort to draw a line under the Greek debt crisis and prevent the spread of the Greek disease to other countries. The deal would write off a portion of Greece’s debt and underwrite banks and governments that may be thrown into difficulties as a result. Markets rallied, as they always do when a little tension is relieved, then slid downward again once the financial dealers of the world returned to work the next day, having consumed a little too much cocaine and fine wine the night before.

Then the unexpected happened: Greek Prime Minister Papandreou decided, without even first warning his cabinet or other EU leaders, to call a referendum on the deal. Europe’s leaders were mortified, as were Papandreou’s fellow cabinet ministers, and of course the markets. The decision was bizarre at many levels. Greeks have been hugely punished for the atrocious financial management of Greek governments (mostly not Papandreou’s, but the conservative administration that preceded it). Incomes have fallen by a shocking amount in a short time, and many Greeks are unable to make ends meet. But the decision was a moronic one: it was impossible to organise a referendum before Greece was owed €8bn from the EU, meaning it would have to default on some debts, and be unable to pay public workers at a time when they are already living on the bread line. It was a slap in the face for other EU countries (chiefly Germany) who were keeping Greece afloat at their own, huge, expense. And the concept of the referendum itself was simply moronic – the Greek people would effectively be asked whether to face financial hardship or the meltdown of their democracy. One can’t help but sympathise with Papandreou who is under unbelievable pressure, but the decision seemed to show he had lost the plot completely.

A rebellion in the government forced Papandreou to U-turn and the referendum was cancelled again within a few days.

I had tweeted that the referendum decision was moronic, and was met with a response from a number of tweeters, left and right, that I was “opposing democracy” or “opposing the right of the Greek people to decide”. I’m not ideologically opposed to referendums, but I can’t think of many cases where they make sense. We (in most of Europe and the US) have representative democracies rather than direct democracies for good reason: most of the population don’t have the time or the inclination to inform themselves on complex issues, nor should they have to – that’s why we have professional politicians, and provide them with the funding to employ economists, historians, political scientists, statisticians and so on.

Attempts by economists to quantify the options have put the cost of preventing a crash at €1tn to €2tn – a mind-blowing amount of cash. Attempts to quantify the alternative are difficult, as chaos is basically unpredictable: would the EU unravel? Would that lead to trade wars or actual wars? The only firm answer seems to be that the cost of not saving Greece would be many times higher than of saving it. Does it make sense to allow the people to make that decision?

The question would seem simple enough: Should Greece accept or reject the EU deal? But more honestly, it would say: Should Greece continue with this pain and try to turn the economy around, or should we face economic collapse, a likely military coup, and drag the rest of Europe down with us? Is it ethical to give Greeks a say as to whether Italy, Spain, France and eventually the rest of Europe down with it? What right do they have to decide that? In reality, Greeks had their say years ago: they elected weak or corrupt leaders who failed to tax the wealthy, and who funded improved lifestyles for the Greek people using cheap loans from European banks. It’s harsh, but it happened. Why not give the Norwegians a referendum on whether it should be sunnier in mid-winter? Surely they have the right to decide that? It would be equally nonsensical – the poor Greek people need and deserve leaders who will make tough but informed decisions on their behalf, not useless paper exercises of “choice” when there is no choice.

The nationalistic British right is becoming equally agitated in their demand for a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU. If you listen to the small minority who actually understand the implications of that choice, you’ll hear that an exit would cause huge, lasting damage to the British economy. A referendum may fairly be phrased: Do you want to see a large cut in your standard of living or not? To which the average Brit may actually make an informed decision. But masking that as “do you want to exit the European Union?” would be another question which 90% of the population is unqualified to answer. You could, of course, make voting contingent on demonstrating a good understanding of the economic and historical issues – which thankfully would exclude most of the electorate. But if you did that, why not just ask those people who are actually qualified instead?

Earlier this year, the British people heavily rejected the Alternative Vote, a minor change to our voting system that would have improved the quality of our democratic process and given us more of a say over who governs us. It was a moronic decision – but how were most voters to know that? They took their lead from the moronic tabloid newspapers. And they represented the interests of the two main political parties, which would have lost their power duopoly under the new system. So rather than spend time and money asking the electorate, why not just ask unelected newspaper owners instead? It would be fast, cheap and give exactly the same result.

Referendums allow the mob to decide, and the mob is easily swung. Two years ago in Switzerland (which runs a system of direct democracy), the people voted to ban the building of tall towers. But not all tall towers: specifically those attached to mosques, also known as minarets. The Swiss, not the most racially diverse people, basically ran an exercise in minority-lynching, in full public view. Democracy at its best? If democracy is another word for lynching, I’ll give it a miss, thanks. As a member of the Jewish minority comprising about 0.3% of the UK population, the thought of such a system of “democracy” makes me queasy.

And look at California: the state adopted a system of direct democracy, allowing measures to be added to every ballot and voted on in each election. Given that most people have little time to research every ballot proposition, the propositions that make it are usually backed by big money interests. In trying to give more power to the people, California instead gave more power to wealthy vested interests. The results? More people in prison (thus profiting prison operators and prison unions). And the biggest debt of any US state. Why? Because people, quite naturally, vote for better services but no tax rises. Who wouldn’t?

Wouldn’t I like referendums on issues of concern to me? It may have been nice to stop the Iraq war from going ahead, for example. Except, we wouldn’t have been able to stop it. If a referendum was called, we’d have been bombarded by the media with the same lies and fear that MPs were, and the majority of people, unable to separate fact from fiction, would have buckled and voted for war. Love or hate our MPs, and moronic as many of them are, they’re still far better informed on world issues than the average Brit. They took the wrong decision on Iraq. So would have most British people.

There are many ways to improve our democracies: elected employee representatives on corporate boards, the right to recall our representatives, freedom of information so journalists can tell us what our politicians are up to, and proportional forms of voting so no vote is wasted. But referendums? They don’t improve democracy, they’re just a straightforward race to the bottom.