As I write this, there is a referendum campaign in progress about whether or not Britain should leave the European Union. I have to say, I don’t like it. Not, the European Union, the referendum. I have never liked the idea of a referendum and now I have realised why.
The point of a referendum is to allow the whole voting population to make an informed decision. The problem with that is in the word “informed”. Most of us aren’t. Some of us hoped to be informed by the referendum campaign, but again, we have a problem of semantics: this time, it’s “campaign”. Once the starting gun has been fired, we find ourselves being addressed by politicians whose aim is not to inform, but to persuade. At that stage, they have made up their minds and their objective is to promote their opinion, not to share the truth. Thus if there are facts to be had, and those facts do not support the views of a particular side, then that side will do its best to muddy the waters, so that the electorate are no longer clear on what is a fact and what isn’t.
It can be argued that we should have informed ourselves before the start of the campaign. That is a hopelessly naive position. One cannot be an expert in every field, and in any case, to whom should we turn for this information? Not the press. Reporting of the EU in the British press is not even adequate; at best, summits are covered superficially, at worst we get lies (the straight banana stories) that support the proprietors’ agenda. (In addition to any political part of the newspapers’ agenda, there is the basic commercial imperative to sell newspapers. We buy gossip and we buy artificial outrage. We don’t buy factual reportage.)
The referendum is a political fig leaf. It’s purpose is to hide embarrassing divisions in a political party. (The current referendum is a way of avoiding divisions in the Conservative party; the 1975 referendum – on the original EU accession treaty – was held to avoid divisions in Labour.) It overcomes the need for politicians to do their job: their job – the job for which we elected them – is to inform themselves and make decisions. As it is, they are playing solely for their personal advantage; they have made up their minds and they are misinforming us.
So, after all that, will I be voting in the referendum? Certainly.
I look at it from a business viewpoint and a personal one. For business, I want the largest possible market with the fewest rules. Those rules need to apply to everyone competing in the market. (That’s the famous level playing field.)
I find myself dealing with a lot of rules imposed on business – taxation, employment law, employee pensions, copyright law – all of which come from the British government and all of which are necessary to ensure that I behave fairly towards my staff, towards my suppliers and towards the country as a whole. The one bureaucratic constraint I face from the EU as an on-line trader is VAT. For on-line sales, I need to apply the VAT rate of the receiving country. The UK applies a zero rate of VAT for physical books, but the standard (20%) rate for electronic copies of the same books. France applies a reduced rate (5.5%) for books and for electronic copies. Germany applies the standard rate (19% ) for books and electronic copies. This is the result of nation states behaving as nation states and trying to gain advantage over one another (or do favours to particular local lobbies). As a business, we have to keep track of this; I would distinctly prefer a regime of one set of VAT rules and one set of VAT rates throughout Europe. From that viewpoint, I want more European integration, not less.
From a personal point of view, I want to travel with the minimum of hassle from border controls (from which viewpoint, a vote to leave is a vote for more bureaucracy).
I shall be voting to remain.