Neverending Referendums

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Referendums. Aren’t they great? A chance to exercise your democratic right on world changing issues that the vast majority of us don’t really comprehend. The purest form of democracy where our base instincts are what guide us in the ballot box and a protest vote could determine the outcome. A chance for politicians to include the general public in decisions that could affect generations of people, while completely negating their own responsibility as parliamentarians. A potentially binding decision in which only a tiny majority of the public actually agree with.

This may sound like a pessimistic appraisal, but I believe there is a modicum of truth in it. Referendums have hardly been out of the political discourse in the United Kingdom for well over five years now and this trend looks set to continue far into the foreseeable future.

Scotland, in particular, has been acutely affected by the phenomenon of the referendum. We have had two within twenty-one months of one another (I’m not including the Alternative vote referendum in 2011. It was such a non-event that ordering a cheese and onion pastie at Greggs was more memorable) and the SNP-led Scottish Government has recently fired the starting pistol on a third divisive one as well.

But do they settle anything? I would have to say no. In Scotland, the ‘Yes’ campaign refused to concede defeat and unofficially the campaign never ended. The calls for Indyref2 started the very next day and just over two years later the SNP are passing legislation to hold another one, probably within the current lifetime of the Scottish Parliament. The debate over Scottish independence was not settled ‘for a generation’. Like the spectre at the Feast, its looming and melancholy presence can be felt by all of us.

The EU referendum was similar as well. Many of the foot soldiers of the ‘Remain’ campaign were equally as vocal as those on the ‘Yes’ campaign in 2014 and attempts to block the result, legal challenges, and an appeal to parliamentary or lords intervention have never ceased since. The forces that lose try to build coalitions to block the victor and believe that they have only lost because they have been cheated.

The side that ‘wins’ can be just as bad, but they at least have majority opinion on their side, which is about as close as you get to a clear decision during a referendum.

Of course, all these referendums have achieved is to further reinforce divisions in the U.K. Urban vs Rural; England and Wales Vs Scotland and Northern Ireland; London Vs the North of England; pro-immigration forces Vs Anti-immigration forces. Brexit Vs remain; Yes vs No. Opening up such unpredictable unstable forces is never a good thing for a seemingly cohesive society and once opened how do you put such forces back in Pandora’s Box?

You essentially can’t. Once they’re out, they are allowed to run rampant across the land as the rise of the largely innocuous ‘see you Jimmy’ and its uglier cousin, ‘blood and soil’ nationalism in Scotland demonstrates. The spate of anti-immigrant hate crime and xenophobic attacks in England are probably at least related to forces that were let slip during the E.U. referendum as well. Such forces can’t be captured again and take on a life of their own, free of will of the political masters that unleashed them.

The side that lost the referendum will, sometimes understandably, feel aggrieved by the decision, but with social media, you can create your own personal echo chamber where you only lost because the other side consists of cheating reprobates/the establishment/Wastemonster/MI5/quislings or the grossly uninformed. You, of course, are enlightened and made the right and informed choice, unlike the opposing forces.

But did you make an informed and enlightened choice? How much do you really know about the economy of the Eurozone or the refugee crisis? Did you look at the feasibility of currency union between England and Scotland? Did many of the people who voted ‘Yes’ consider what would have happened when oil prices plummeted to nearly £30 a barrel in January 2016 from the rather more impressive £120 in July 2014. Did you put all the potential issues in their full historical, cultural and political context? Of course you didn’t (If you did, I congratulate you and please accept my humble apology). You need to work, raise children and pay the mortgage/rent, play Call of Duty and you also need to have some downtime occasionally as well.

Unless you are a proper news Junkie, most of us catch a glance at the TV news, have a quick leaf through the Metro or look at a news app on their smartphone. And let’s be honest, many people in Britain have absolutely no interest in domestic or international events until referendums. I have met people like this, they are good people, they have been acquaintances and colleagues, emotionally mature and functional tax-paying members of our society. They’re just happily disinterested in politics, economics and cultural affairs and that’s their business.

Even at the EU referendum, 27.8% of the U.K. electorate didn’t even bother sauntering into the voting booth. In Glasgow, only 56.2 of voters exercised their democratic right in June 2016. Even though it was admittedly far lower, 15% of the Scottish population, totalling well over 600,00 people didn’t make it to the polling booth on the 18th of September 2014.

Some people are informed, some not, but for others, a referendum is just another opportunity to make a political statement about the party of government. In Scotland, the generational hatred of the Conservative Party was a major reason decision to vote ‘Yes’. As always, social media serves as the primary outlet for this. One woman voted ‘Yes’ because ‘I really hate the conservatives royals labour especially that cnt Cameron!’. Although anecdotal, it does represent a certain outlook of many during the independence referendum. By 2014 Scotland had been in political union with England since 1707 but rather than taking a longer term view, some people wanted to leave because they didn’t like the four-year-old administration of David Cameron. A similar section of the voting public acted the same way at the E.U. referendum. One man was so excited at getting to leave the E.U. in the hope that his vote would ‘stick it up Cameron’. Probably not the best way to make a decision about the future direction of the United Kingdom.

However, regardless of your interest in politics and economics, we are all equal in that booth where we have to put a cross in one of two boxes. Such a simplistic choice condenses an extraordinarily diverse and heavily loaded, complicated issue into a binary decision. This in itself creates two adversarial and opposing forces to begin with and already creates two rival, antagonistic camps, ready to do battle with one another. There will obviously be a political continuum in each opposing group, stretching across the traditional left-right discourse. This can’t be helped, it’s the nature of politics, but this can’t ever be reflected in a binary choice. A referendum can’t have 10 different scenarios on it. It wouldn’t be practical, but it no way reflects the nuances of the human world with its viewpoints, debates, personalities and opinions.

This simplistic political nature can lead to a simplistic discourse. Politicians can use this to their advantage. People tend to remember politicians in Scotland hoping to emulate the nearly £500 billion oil fund that Norway has. The £350 million a week for the NHS on the ‘Leave’ bus was the primary mantra for the entire campaign and is probably the only statistic that most of us now remember, even though it has now been jettisoned by those who proclaimed it.

Referendums might be simplistic politically but they make up for it with emotional heft. Party politics and general elections are a chance to engage the brain a bit more, with more nuanced arguments and in-depth thought. But referendums tend to be on more emotional issues and people tend to vote with the heart. Issues of identity, migration, who are you are as person. Scottish or British? integrationist or non-integrationist? This is problematic as the more emotional the issue the less rational we tend to act, behave and thus vote. General elections tend to be undertaken with a bit more decorum. Debates during referendums degenerate into shouting matches in rapid succession.

Of course, even if the decision has catastrophic economic, political and social consequences, politicians aren’t to blame, they are only enacting the democratic will of the British people. To be fair, it can be hard to argue otherwise.

In the age of the ‘constant campaign’ and sound bite politics, referendums will probably become more common. With people increasingly using social media as their primary source of information they already suffer from ‘confirmation bias’ and seek out sources of information that fit their own, preconceived opinions. This trend will probably continue unabated as politics becomes increasing narrow and personal. The interesting question is, is this spate of referendums directly causing more division or merely expressing long dormant existing ones?

If only we possessed some sort of large, democratically elected body, full of individuals who we have mandated to make complex decisions on our behalf. A place where lawmakers could have informed debates about these issues. I mean, it wouldn’t be a dictatorship, we would elect them, say every four or five years. Now where would we find such as institution…

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Winter is Coming

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It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’, so sung Andy Williams in 1963. Even though he was referring to the Christmas season, I believe that this was too narrow. The same sentiment could be applied to the entire autumn and winter months.
Now that we are hurtling into autumn and winter, I thought I would write a piece on the many, many reasons why we are entering the most enchanted, beautiful and magical of all the seasons:

  1. The celebrations: What does summer have as a way of marking the season? Music festivals that end of looking like a scene from Ypres or the Somme, except with hipsters and more chance of catching dysentery. The kind of event where it can take you five hours just to leave the car park as you sit in a coach with other people who haven’t washed for four days and are now approaching a drink/drug induced come down of epic proportions.
    In the space of a few short months you have harvest celebrations in parts of the UK then Halloween, Bonfire night, Christmas, New Year and Valentine’s Day, all in relatively quick succession. Although they may be all slightly tainted with crass consumerism and a tedious run in period, they are still the highlights of the calendar year for many of us and are perhaps the only time that we may get to see our extended family.
  2. The clear, cool air: Step outside on a bright winters morning. Take a nice deep breath. Can you feel the nice, cold and crisp air chill the inside of your nose and go into your lungs? You could be walking to your work in an endless urban conurbation, but if you close your eyes and have an overactive imagination you could be walking along an Alpine stream on a December day.
    As an added bonus, is there anything prettier and more refreshing than a nice frosty morning. The grass is crunchy beneath your feet. You can see your breath in the air. Everyone has rosy red cheeks. Perfect.
  3. Going outside: It’s an autumnal and winter wonderland through late September to early April. The leaves turn brown and auburn, before gently and delicately floating to the ground. Rather than the plain old green that you have during the summer, you have a palette of amber, beige, cocoa, copper, russet and ochre. Even in death leafs serve a useful function and help to cover up the packets of Walkers crisps, cans of Monster energy drink and metallic tins of unfinished chicken chow mein. The autumn gives everything a more picturesque aspect and because you don’t have that horrible life-giving orb of light blinding you for most of the day, you can actually enjoy it.
    The deep winter is just as beautiful as well. The trees may look skeletal, but there is a stark beauty to the landscape. Everything’s a bit more rugged and exposed. If you’re lucky enough to be caught in a snowfall, all the sounds of the world are dimmed to nothing and you’re left with the silent hum of nature.
    Even if you do live in an ugly town or city. Who cares! It’s dark for most of the day anyway.
  4. Staying inside: Have you ever tried to read a book or play a computer game or do a crossword puzzle during the summer? I’m sure we all have a vague sense of shame about indulging in indoor activities while ‘the sun is splitting the stones’. When you were younger, your mum would shout or ask you politely to go outside. ‘But I’m making an Airfix model of a Supermarine Spitfire’ you would shout back. ‘I don’t want to go outside’. There’s no shame in staying indoors in winter. You can twitch the curtain, look outside at the grey overcast day and go back to your sedentary activity, without a care in the world.
  5. The contrast in temperatures: In the summer it’s always hot. You go outside; hot. You go inside and it’s still hot. Everywhere is bloody hot. But going from a brisk, blustery cold day into a lovely warm house makes you actually appreciate the heat more. What can beat the pleasure of going to a café for a hot drink during a frigid day? It’s the stuff that prose is made of. No poet could write something on how they went to get a frappuccino in July. You’re far more aware of the yin and yang of hot and cold in the winter.
  6. The winter makes you feel small and is a reminder of your mortality. This might come across as a bit grim but I believe that it’s important to feel humbled occasionally. It’s good for the human psyche. It stops us getting ahead of ourselves and serves as a reminder of our minuscule and insignificant place in the universe. Human achievements can serve well enough. Large mega structures and engineering marvels such as bridges and skyscrapers can often dwarf the individual.
    However, monuments of nature serve this purpose far better. Just walk up a hill and you’ve already traversed something that physically outmatches any human achievement. I used to purposely walk down the shore on some of the windiest days of the year. You get buffeted about, can barely stand your ground but you feel so small and insignificant. The mere movement of air from low to high pressure is enough to blow you over, puny human. Deep winter itself has a similar effect. A reminder that no matter how thorough your preparations, winter will always come round again. At the risk of sounding pretentious, the seasons reflect aspects of human personality, the light and the dark. The good and the bad.
    This is reflected in literature. It was a ‘bright cold day in April’ not a warm day in April. The cargo ship Demeter, carrying Count Dracula, didn’t collide with Whitby Harbour on a summertime zephyr. Ishmael stated that he put to sea whenever it was a ‘drizzly November’ in his soul. Would the obsessional and doomed romance of Heathcliff and Cathy be as evocative had it taken place in broad sunlit uplands, rather than the desolate and cold moors? The motto of House Stark isn’t ‘Summer is Coming’.
  7. Food: This is no brainier really. Name your favourite food. Go on. There’s a fair chance that it’s highly calorific, has a lot of fat and/or sugar and is something that is more associated with the autumn or winter: Stews, soups, creamed rice pudding, chocolate, custard, mashed potato, chips. The list is endless. Traditional takeaway foods take on a new lease of life in the autumn and winter as well. Who really enjoys a 12-inch pizza in mid-summer? It just seems more appropriate and filling during the colder months. Winter Drinks include: pumpkin spice lattes, chai lattes, and various varieties of hot chocolate and last but by no means least, tea. This is particularity important in the UK. I and my compatriots drink tea all year round, but for about three months of the year, I look in dismay at a steaming hot cup of tea staring at me first thing in the morning. It’s 22c outside, this just isn’t appropriate (I drink it anyway, cause I ain’t no quitter). In winter it becomes a magical beverage again, giving you warmth and comfort.
  8. The fashion: No more muffin tops, sock and sandals, boob tubes, tans, ray ban sunglasses, tight clothes, neon, flip-flops, fashion jewellery and tattoos of bull terriers or national flags. All banished, underneath glorious, and appropriately fitting winter clothes. In general, when in public, people should be as fully clothed as possible. The winter prevents people from showing off flesh by the sheer fact that’s it’s too cold to do so. Although this won’t stop some people from trying (I once witnessed a man walking about university in sandals, shorts and a T-shirt in one of coldest days of the year in 2006) However, they are usually ostracised and left to die in the cold, in a Darwinian struggle for survival.In general, people look smarter in the winter. Winter clothes seem better cut, have better from, usually because they’re manufactured from thicker material than their summer counterparts and hide most of us beneath layers of cotton, wool and nylon.

So there it is, a brief list of why autumn and winter are the best seasons of the year. Please feel free to disagree. I might not have time to get back to you, though. I’ll be too busy arranging my cable knit jumpers and thermals into order. And remember, winter is coming.