The breaking point of democracy: your country needs you

The European referendum represents a vital moment for British democracy.

Paul Hilder
22 June 2016
Jo Cox.jpg

Jo Cox, fair use

This referendum casts a stark spotlight on the state of our democracy. Jo Cox was one of the most passionate, principled and honest campaigners I have ever known, and she was killed amidst a toxic fog of cynical campaigning and failing politics.

It is time for all of us to take responsibility. Our own actions in the coming days will shape our country for decades to come. Jo’s vision was clear. As she said in her maiden speech, “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” But this ideal cannot be achieved by ignoring problems or disagreements. To live up to her example, we must listen and reach out to build bridges, as well as acting on our principles.

I passionately support a referendum In vote, just as Jo Cox did. I disagree fiercely with my co-founder Steve Hilton, now one of the leading voices on the Out side. But we agree that the status quo is broken, that a more open and democratic politics is needed, and that there are good arguments on both sides of the referendum debate.


Steve and I have worked together at Crowdpac to build a balanced and objective voter tool that lays out the points on each side. Over half a million voters have so far used it to weigh up all the issues of democracy, the economy, identity and society.

The results are striking. Almost nine in ten of us find at least some points on both sides persuasive. But even after considering all the arguments, the country splits almost exactly in half – with a third strongly IN, a third strongly OUT and a third wavering in the middle.

Significant majorities nationwide agree that free movement of people with the EU is on balance a good thing, and European cooperation is important for the interests of future generations and for dealing with global issues such as the environment or terrorism.

Most people think that some issues are better dealt with at a European level, that EU legislation helps protect British workers’ rights and “Britons aren’t quitters”. People are also more likely to disagree than agree with the statements that being in the EU undermines British identity and culture, and that democracy is only possible nationally or locally, not at the European level.

On the Leave side, clear majorities agree that the UK should be freer to decide our own policies instead of having to accept so many EU rules, that the UK government should be able to stop so many Europeans from coming to the UK, and that the way the EU is governed today is mostly undemocratic.

A large majority agree that Europe’s economy is stagnating and we should do more business with the rest of the world instead. This argument is much more persuasive than Remain’s arguments that the economy and living standards will suffer if we leave. The Remain campaign has thus far failed to make a decisive economic case to swing voters, and scaremongering tactics like George Osborne’s “punishment budget” have been largely counter-productive.

The public yearn for change. Given a better alternative at the last general election, they would have taken it. Few trust our politicians or the EU, and the cry of “take control” speaks powerfully to people’s anxieties. The campaigns have let us all down. Most politicians have failed to offer real leadership, and many media outlets obscure more than they reveal.

This is the state of Britain today: we must face it squarely. It is true that if there had been no referendum, our friend Jo might still be alive, working to mend our country and to build a better world. But that loss and heartbreak is felt by good people on both sides of the referendum divide. I find hope in that shared humanity and our ability to hear each others’ arguments, whatever the outcome of the vote.

In the end this is not David Cameron’s referendum, any more than it belongs to Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage. It is our referendum: a unique opportunity to wrestle with some of our biggest and most existential issues together as a country.

It is painful because many in our country are in pain: feeling shut out of opportunity, alienated by politics, knocked off-balance by globalisation, or let down by the economy. A secure job, a living wage, a home of your own, a safe community, public services you can rely on and a pension for your old age – the essentials of a good life feel like they are slipping out of reach for many.

It is also painful because lies and deceptions are taking hold. It is a bitter irony that most Leave voters trust no-one, believing instead in false claims that we give £350 million a week to Brussels which could go to the NHS instead, or that 76 million Turks are about to join the EU. The Remain campaign is guilty of its own deceptions, but polls suggest these distorted claims are cutting through.

Yes, we need to take control of our democracy and the forces shaping our lives. Most of those voting Leave are sincere about this. But I believe Brexit’s promise is false: instead it threatens to sow market chaos and instability at home and amongst our nearest neighbours, leaving us more subject to the whims of hedge funds and multinational corporations, while the politicians shuffle deckchairs on the sinking Titanic of Westminster politics.

Having spoken alongside Yanis Varoufakis at the Another Europe Is Possible rally in London last month, I am convinced we can better take back control both by getting more involved in our own democracy, and by stepping up again to lead in Europe as we have before.

Europe needs us. Whatever you think of their politics, both Thatcher and Blair had huge influence in Europe. Cameron neglected these alliances, and has done almost nothing serious to point the Union in a better direction: no wonder many think we have little power there. If we vote to stay in, that must change. Britons can ally with reformers from every other country to build a more democratic, more prosperous and freer Europe – and we must work for greater policy freedoms and control at national level as part of that.

This is one of those moments when your country needs you. Don’t sit it out. This vote is in our hands, and we still can shape its outcome. Talk to friends and family, to neighbours and to colleagues. Campaign, make phone-calls, knock on doors – do whatever you can.

This is the breaking point of our democracy. Establishment politics is collapsing, passions run high, even truth hangs in the balance. Whatever the result of Thursday’s vote and whether you win or lose, there will be work to do to mend what’s broken and build a better future for our country. We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us. Let’s get to work. 


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