My 350 on BREXIT: Meditations on our political culture

“Politicians recognise that serious, informed debate does not translate into votes, so the primary focus is on finding a scapegoat, not a solution.”

Alex Fusco
30 June 2016

In the aftermath of the historic British vote to leave the EU, openDemocracy is asking for our readers' thoughts on Brexit and what needs to happen next in 350 words. We've had an extraordinary response and you can read them all here.

Among other things, this referendum has revealed the chasm between political understanding of the people and the political reality of the world we inhabit. The fact that a Referendum was called is evidence of a split in the Establishment. Enough pressure was brought to bear on our soon to be ex-Prime Minister David Cameron by his Conservative colleagues to force him into calling a plebiscite. Here we see the mechanics of power; an issue will only be debated, will only be put to the people, if there is sufficient opposition among the elite. If calls to leave the EU had emanated from a fringe group, or even an Opposition party, we can be sure a Referendum would never have taken place.

The question was therefore put to the electorate; Remain or Leave. From the very beginning of the campaign, there was a sense of bewilderment that the people of Britain were being asked to vote about something they knew very little about.

This was held up by the Leave campaign as evidence of a disconnect between the people of Britain and a distant European political elite operating from Brussels. But the question should have been why don’t we understand? Why is there such a limited understanding of how politics works, both in this country and at European level? Why don’t we have the requisite knowledge to make informed decisions about how our country is run?

What we see is the paradox of a post-political democracy. We live in an information age. Facts, figures, data, statistics, are readily available. But collectively, we do not have the capacity to interrogate the information we encounter.

In essence, we lack the ability to ask ‘why?’ Why does X say Y? Why is x given more coverage than y? Why does Mr. B say CDE? Why is Mr X interviewed and not Mr Y? Why does newspaper Z publish XYZ? What informs public debate? What is the dominant narrative? Who are the key actors? What is their agenda?

Outside of a relatively small intellectual elite, these questions are never asked. From a young age, perhaps from birth, we are socialised into conformity. Acceptance of norms, rules and regulations. Acceptance of figures of authority.

But democracy, real democracy, requires an informed and engaged citizenry. When the aforementioned conditions are not met, politics becomes a dirty word. Instead of compromise, we see an ugly obsession with power. We see a politics of division and polarisation. Politicians recognise that serious, informed debate does not translate into votes, so the primary focus is on finding a scapegoat, not a solution.

A culture of blame develops, and finger-pointing becomes a national sport. The mass-media fan the flames, subjugating their critical democratic function to brutal market logic; the need to sell is paramount, all else forgotten. In the context of the Referendum, we see this most pertinently with the issue of immigration.

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