There’s been a lot of talk about the need for a “mandate” in Europe lately. This is a fairly new word in politics-speak and what it means is that some politicians think that the electorate have never been asked for their opinion of our involvement in Europe. They want a referendum.
One recent referendum in the UK was about a possible change to the voting system. Quite important, you would think. The turnout was a miserable 42%. Well, you might say, that’s not a big surprise, it’s common for turnout to be low for anything that isn’t a general election, and you’d be right.
However, it might change your mind to know that, at the last general election in 2010, voter turnout was at a record low of 65% and, of that 65%, 73% were over the age of 65 (information taken from the UK Political Info website).
It seems to me that, rather than worrying about whether we have a mandate in Europe, we should be worrying about why the population is becoming increasingly disinclined to vote at all.
So, what are the reasons for this? Here is my opinion:
1. We live in a media culture where we are encouraged to see our political leaders as bungling idiots who have no idea what they’re doing. Of course, this is quite true of many of them, but there are just as many good politicians out there, we just don’t hear about them.
2. There is no longer a culture of social responsibility in this country. The era of the last Conservative government and the pernicious influence of possibly the most damaging Prime Minister we’ve ever had, Margaret Thatcher, pretty much did away with it. She famously said: “There is no such thing as ‘society'”. It was a time of unbridled consumerism, a “me first” culture which encouraged us all to look after ourselves and our families and nuts to everyone else. This, in turn, has led to an adult generation who don’t see the point of voting as they can’t see how it will directly affect them or those who they care about.
3. Westminster has become full of career politicians. These are young people who have come into politics straight from University. They have never worked at an ordinary job, they have little or no conception of what everyday life is like for their constituents, and all they seem to care about is how far up the political ladder they can rise. This, in turn, means that the ordinary voter sees nothing he can identify with in the personalities or actions of his/her leader and is therefore discouraged from voting.
4. Our current government is full of millionaires and millionaire children of millionaires. Most of the current cabinet have no idea what it’s actually like to have to earn a living in order to feed themselves and their family. As they cut benefits yet again, they jeer and laugh in the House of Commons like schoolchildren. Their primary concern is to protect those who they see as vital to the economy of this country – big business, the banks, and the super rich. They are not afraid to step on the poor and vulnerable to achieve this. Voters can see no real difference between the leaders of all the major parties, so they choose not to vote.
Or, more damagingly, they choose to vote for one of the aggressively far right parties. Because this is what happens when only a relatively small percentage of the population choose to take part in the democratic process. Minority parties start to rise to the fore.
In my opinion, by far the most damaging of these at the moment is The UK Independence Party (UKIP). Other minority parties, such as the BNP or EDL, are quite clearly run by thugs who have little idea of how to run a political party effectively (hence the recent decline of the BNP). In contrast, the leaders of UKIP know exactly what they’re doing. As the Coalition government has begun to falter, UKIP has confidently stepped into the breach. They have a clear, well-formed message. They know how to use slogans and marketing (mugs with “Europe isn’t my cup of tea” written on them, for example). They deliberately play on the electorate’s insecurities and hark back to a rosy coloured past that never existed, but which many people still seem to hanker after. A time when we drank tea and talked to our neighbours over the garden fence. A time when all the faces you saw around you were white. When we were British with a capital “B”.
It is UKIP and their ilk who want this referendum. They know that their supporters have been turned back on to the political process and will vote in their droves. They will get what they want, a total separation from the European Union, and their popularity will rise.
I truly believe that if we have referendum on Europe now, we will be forced to leave the Union. If we do this, I am also certain that this will spell disaster for our country. Our status internationally will nose-dive. Trade agreements will evaporate and we will quickly become an insignificant little island with no political or international power. Of course, all this may not happen, but I for one don’t want to take that risk, do you?
Unless we can somehow begin to galvanise ourselves to get out there and vote in greater numbers, any referendum on Europe will be a complete disaster.