REFERENDA generally have a good press, evoking images of thoroughly democratic Swiss cantons and busily involved, civic-minded citizens. But the conduct of, and reaction of the British public to, the referendum on European Union membership suggests that this reputation is being punctured. Those who considered it such a good idea may live to regret their decision.

The Brexit or leave faction have some good arguments illustrated by the fact that many of its adherents are people of advancing years who voted enthusiastically for  membership of the European Economic Community in the 1970s. They did so then for two main reasons: to make sure they would never have to fight in a European war as had been required of their parents and grandparents; and for the benefits of a powerful free trade zone. The European Union, however, is a far cry from the EEC of forty years ago, a bloated, interfering and undemocratic Brussels bureaucracy that presides over an institution of increasing instability – financial, economic and social.

When the Brexiteers talk about the cost of EU membership and its malign effect on national sovereignty they are on reasonably strong ground. The idea that Thursday 23 June could represent independence day for Britain sounds far-fetched, but it’s a plausible political ploy. This is the civilised face of Brexit, but scratch beneath the surface and one finds increasing degrees of xenophobia from legions of Conservative and Labour voters, not to mention the Faragists of UKIP. It is an unholy alliance bolted together by prejudice, bloody mindedness and nostalgia for the past. This has been stoked with glee by most of the popular press.

Some of this is readily explicable in terms of globalisation and the free rein it has offered capital. It is a system programmed to benefit a privileged class, depressing the wages and the public service benefits of the masses and increasing their sense of insecurity. This is the source of what may appear to be an irrational contempt for the political elite that has slowly gathered steam since the 2008 financial collapse. Thus we increasingly live in an era of the demagogue – Trump, Le Pen, Wilders, Hofer, Farage, even Boris Johnson. South Africa’s own Julius Malema fits in here somewhere. The echoes of inter-war Europe are disturbing. But people feel alienated, marginalised; communities worry that they are losing old identities as capital moves readily and ruthlessly to the benefit of some, towing in its wake groups of relatively cheap, productive labour easily seen in terms of the alien ‘other’. The crises of Africa and the Middle East, in some senses manufactured by the West, have exacerbated this situation.

It is commonly understood that the referendum was called as a result of factionalism in the Conservative Party. This longstanding and niggling Tory disagreement may yet produce a political earthquake in Britain. As a whole the campaign has been deplorable. Surprised by growing Brexit support, the Remain campaign has resorted to scare tactics designed to use self-interest to harry voters back in line. Senior political figures have indulged in wild speculation about the economics of a post-Brexit Britain and influential supporters have followed suit prophesying doom for everything from the arts to the Premier League. There has been little by way of leadership that draws on Britain’s responsibilities and future as a nation – one of shopkeepers as Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly observed. Nothing much seems to have changed over several centuries.

As was shown by the campaign for Scottish independence last year, referenda reduce complex issues to banal simplicities and are fundamentally divisive. They operate in binary mode encouraging rigid positions, sloganeering and bitterness. Whatever the result, the four parts of the United Kingdom will probably vote differently and put England at odds with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If Brexit wins, that will be the beginning of the end of unionism. (It might also be the beginning of the end for the EU.) It will certainly mean the start of considerable political instability in Britain beyond Scottish independence and increased tension in Northern Ireland.

Both the Conservative and Labour parties are now barely manageable coalitions, both in parliament and amongst their memberships. Whether the former can be stitched together again after a campaign that has often focused on personality rather than substantial issues is questionable. The Labour Party, apparently less divided, is vulnerable to the same centripetal tendencies. With the decline of the Liberal Democrats it is hard to see a future for any sort of coalition with the present parliamentary make-up.

A number of observers have commented with concern about increasing bitterness and divisiveness in British politics, highlighted now by the murder of Jo Cox. Perhaps it is time for party reconfiguration as recently suggested by the former Conservative MP Matthew Parris along ideological lines: right-wing conservatives, liberal social democrats, and socialists. If the referendum has taught anything it is that healthy, constructive politics requires reasoned debate based on belief and policy; not the single-issue excuse to hurl abuse, brickbats and downright lies. Ultimately referenda can be profoundly anti-democratic.

Sharp Thoughts from the Thornveld 45, 20 June 2016