Virtue, People’s Vote & Competence

Far too much is written about Brexit. This may not help. I have a three points that I don’t often hear in the debate. If they are not shocking, that is to be expected – we should not want to constantly be shocked by our political discourse.

Firstly, we should behave decently to the people who have become like citizens of this country. That our country acts virtuously matters. Whether they are members of the Windrush generation or European citizens, people who have lived here for a long time have become part of an informal compact. Before we consider what their their actual rights are (and they may have the right to stay), we should treat them well and let them remain part of us. If we wished to keep the option open to stop such people being treated like citizens we should have made it clear to them decades or years ago respectively. In the American immigration debate, no party actually seems to wish to eject dreamers or illegal migrants who have lived there for some time and I suppose might be based on the same notion. We can imagine our friends who are not UK nationals and we don’t want to eject them even if we would like less immigration. This is right and reasonable. It is virtuous to treat well those who expected to be able to live here for the rest of their lives. Regardless of our position in the immigration discussion or indeed in negotiations, virtue is virtue.  We should have guaranteed the rights of such people ages ago. I think it is shameful that we used them as bargaining chips. Such behaviour undermines everyone’s faith that we are a just country, as opposed to a conniving and legalistic one.

Secondly, predictability in life is valuable. Life is at many points confusing and random. Predictability allows people to feel safe and make good choices. There is a reason that a surprise implausible twist in a book annoys us. The Eagles in the Hobbit for instance – if you didn’t know they could come, you would be upset for the way they blow the emotional payoff (let’s not get distracted by this analogy). We cannot perfectly insulate people from the frustrating randomness of life, but we can attempt to not make it worse.

For this reasons we should not have a second referendum. People were told they were making a genuine choice; the democratic process was explained to them in a particular way. Like every other part of the democratic process there were ‘no backsies’. They would not have predicted there would be another vote, so doing so will damage their trust in the system. What about running the same election twice or not getting involved because you can’t trust politicians to carry things out?

But wait, I hear you cry, what if the opinions of the public have changed? We have more than one election in our lives. Yes, I agree. But what was the expectation for this referendum. Like all the others I think the expectation was once in a generation. If remain had won, that would have “settled the issue” if leavers had asked for another. Why not have an election on Europe every two years? How will we ever know what the public actually thinks. Though of course there is another course of action. An election.

Elections force those who make promises to enact them if they are successful in the ballot boxes. The referendum had no such strictures, allowing individuals to promise the moon and then run to the sidelines to complain that it was not being delivered. A second referendum would further open the door for future such votes (what if the public votes to both lower taxes and raise public spending?). It will allow us, the public to think we understand complex political issues (we don’t) and that we understand how to enact policy (we don’t). We will have more exciting emotional campaigns rather than the occasional boredom which accompanies people who actually have to do what they promise. It will stop us believing in the current form of British democracy which has served us well for so many years. There will be be ever quicker news cycles distracting us from the issues which are important and always have been (abortion, the environment, world peace, cancer, heart disease, relations with Europe, America, the Middle East, issues of gender and sexuality, government power, the NHS, benefits, education, the economy – your list may be different but I don’t think it will be wildly so). Repeated referendums will mean that if we come to a difficult issue which should split parties and cause politicians to decide what they really believe, we will instead fudge it. And then fudge it again and again and again.

If the referendum was so great, why do we need another one?

Thirdly, I would like competence. Politicians should be wise, thorough, rational and ideological. I don’t believe the ends justify the means, but I think some means are more effective than others. I don’t think that economic stability should make us long to sell out every other thing we believe in, but rank incompetence is useless everywhere. National sovereignty might be valuable enough to risk everything upon, but losing Europe and getting nothing in return will be a bad move from those we have entrusted to lead our country. I would like politicians who are capable of telling me the hard truths and creating a vision we can get behind and enacting it.

I am not impressed by very many politicians I hear. Rarely do they seem to understand the few things I understand or to explain to me well the things I don’t. Rarely do they seem to keep the main thing the main thing or even to know what the main thing is. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps I read it wrong. Perhaps we are unlucky. Perhaps our education system is failing. Perhaps our ideological window is too narrow. Perhaps it is impossible – perhaps the current situation means that politicians are forced to say the sky is both green and yellow at the same time. I cannot predict the outcome of Brexit but with a weak political class the current situation is worse than it would otherwise be.

I don’t think we should be too anxious about Brexit – it looks to be going badly, but you and I don’t really know enough to say. All the opinions we share here will have little affect (I guess you should donate to an advocacy group instead), so it does not serve us to follow the minutiae. I think we should talk about the issues, though. About virtue and competence, about world peace and the economy, so we can think what really matters next time we go to the ballot box.

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