Abuse, and how not to deal with it

The political abuse and harassment scandal has, it seems, claimed its first life. Welsh Assembly Member Carl Sargeant has reportedly killed himself after allegations were made about his behaviour.

I have no idea whether Sargeant is or is not innocent of the allegations. Already, social media is awash with comments blaming his accusers for his death. There is a real risk that this will deter other people from coming forward with their own stories of abuse.

To be sure, this may serve as a harsh reminder that a throwaway comment may have consequences far beyond those intended. If this does make some people think twice before making trivial or frivolous allegations, then that will be a good thing.

But it is completely wrong to dismiss all allegations of this nature as being frivolous or trivial. Just because something is relatively low level (when compared to, say, an allegation of rape) doesn’t make it not worth reporting. It’s just as illegal to steal a tenner as it is to rob a bank of millions. And low-level sexual harassment and bullying still needs to be dealt with.

If there is blood on anyone’s hands, though, it seems to me that it rests on those who told Sargeant he was under investigation. He posted this on Twitter shortly afterwards:

Now, it seems to me that this is totally inexcusable. To be told that there are allegations against you, but not to be told what they are, is both cruel and a denial of the basic right to defend yourself against your accusers.

It’s worth noting, in this context, that the police can’t arrest you without telling you why you are being arrested. Anyone accused of a crime must, by law, be given all the information that will be used in evidence against them. There can be no justification for any internal disciplinary procedures failing to follow this basic principle of justice.

It seems to me that we need some basic guidelines in place to ensure justice for both the accuser and the accused.

People should think carefully before making allegations, and be sure that what they allege is not trivial or frivolous.

However, no genuine victim should ever be deterred from speaking out, and it’s better to err on the side of reporting the things that are too small rather than not reporting the things that are large.

Any allegation, of any nature, once made, must be taken seriously and investigated appropriately, whether that be internally or by referral to an external agency.

The subject of any allegation has a right to full disclosure of the allegation made, at the time that they are informed of the allegation, and to be kept informed of any information which later comes to light.

Both complainant and subject have a right to be treated with dignity and respect throughout.

The investigation should be neither rushed nor unduly delayed. Reaching the right conclusion is more important than reaching a rapid conclusion, but justice deferred is no justice at all until it is resolved.

This story will, no doubt run and run. Let’s hope that some good can ultimately come out of what is, undoubtedly, a tragedy.

You can call the Samaritans on 116 123. More contact details are on their website.

Don’t give a green light to abuse

Abuse, harassment, inappropriate behaviour. It’s been in the news a lot lately, particularly in relation to Parliament and politicians. Accusations range from the extremely serious, such as rape, to the relatively minor, such as an inappropriate touch on a knee.

I don’t particularly want to comment on the more serious allegations, not least because there’s a strong possibility that these will end up involving the police and CPS and thus become sub judice. And, also, I don’t think anyone would argue that rape is OK, or that people should have to put up with it. The issue in the specific case reported by Labour activist Bex Bailey is more about the way it was covered up rather than any attempt to justify or trivialise it.

There is, though, a repeated meme on social media that many of the lesser allegations are just mischief-making, and that they represent nothing more than everyday behaviour that people should just be robust enough to cope with.

I disagree, although I do accept that there’s a reasonable point to be made there. And, more importantly, not all supposed misbehaviour is, in fact, abusive.

I’m sure many people will have seen the so-called “sex pest spreadsheet” that has been circulating in various media outlets. In reality, much of the behaviour listed there is entirely normal and consensual (and, indeed, has already been widely reported in the media with no adverse comment).

Other inclusions seem more prurient than principled. I, for example, would not take part in what are euphemistically known as “golden showers”, but it is not for me to judge those who do. Equally, having “odd sexual ponchants” (sic) is only of significant concern if the particular oddity is that they are abusive. Otherwise, it’s a matter for those concerned, not for the authorities. Politicians have always been prone to affairs, but, while that may be an issue for their spouses, it is not really abusive in the wider sense.

However, some of the things on that list are abusive or inappropriate. And, where they are, they do need to be addressed. And they can’t simply be dismissed as trivial or unimportant.

This is where I take issue with those who say that what’s described in the spreadsheet as being “handsy” is too commonplace and trivial to care about, and that people should just develop a thick enough skin to brush it off.

To be sure, it is commonplace. And people who have to work in that kind of environment do develop thick skins. But that doesn’t make it right, or acceptable.

When I was at school, it was commonplace to describe people with darker skin tones as “P*aki” or “n*gger”. It didn’t really seem to bother the one black kid in my circle of friends, so presumably he had developed a thick skin about it. But that didn’t make it right then, and it wouldn’t be acceptable now.

Repeated inappropriately sexual behaviour, even low-level, is the same. It may well be commonplace. And, for a long time, it has been tolerated as normative and those who suffer from it have been expected to simply lump it.

But we are better than that now. We hold ourselves to a higher standard, and we have a right to hold others to a higher standard.

This is the real point here. Individual allegations of inappropriate behaviour come and go. Not all of them may be justified. Some may be mistaken, others may be malicious. We should never simply assume that every complaint is automatically credible and true. But, nonetheless, we should not tolerate an environment where abusers routinely get away with abuse simply because nobody else calls them out on it.

That doesn’t mean people can’t flirt, or engage in consensual behaviour. It simply means stopping to think about whether an action or comment is appropriate before moving the hand or opening the mouth.

It is not abusive just to have different sexual preferences to the majority. It isn’t abusive to have a consensual relationship with a colleague. It isn’t necessarily abusive, in the more general sense, to sign up to websites like Ashley Madison. It isn’t abusive to misunderstand someone’s intentions. Anyone can make a mistake occasionally, and misinterpret someone else’s actions as an invitation to more intimacy than was intended. I’ve sure we’ve all been there.

But when someone develops a reputation for being “handsy”, or “not safe in taxis”, or when multiple people report similar “misunderstandings” then it’s not just a simple mistake, or a different perspective on sexuality, but a pattern of behaviour. When someone refuses to accept there is even an issue, but instead accuses all allegations of being false, then that is a problem. And that needs to be challenged, no matter how important or senior the perpetrator. Staying silent, or trying to discredit those who do speak out, is just giving a green light to abuse.

Image credit: The House of Commons Chamber. Image from UK Parliament; licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The “Progressive Alliance” is a figment of the imagination

Left-wing activists cling to the idea that there is an inherent anti-Tory majority, if only the opposition parties could get their act together and cooperate. Real election results, though, make it clear that there is no such thing.

Eight new “metro mayors” were elected this week. What’s interesting about mayoral elections is that they use the supplementary vote system – if no candidate gets more than 50% of the first preferences, the votes cast for all but the top two candidates are reallocated according to their second preferences.

If there is a “progressive alliance” among the electorate, therefore, the way that the second preferences are distributed will reflect this. As it happens, though, they don’t.

Of the eight mayoralties contested, four were won by Labour and four by the Conservatives. The Labour victories were all achieved with more than 50% of first preferences, so second preferences didn’t come into it. But the four Conservative wins all needed second preferences to reach a result.

Image screenshot from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2017/may/04/local-and-mayoral-elections-2017-live-results-tracker
Image screenshot from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2017/may/04/local-and-mayoral-elections-2017-live-results-tracker

In all four of those cases, the total Labour, LibDem and (where applicable) Green vote in the first round was more than 50%. So, if all of the Green and LibDem voters had given Labour their second preferences (or, in Cambridge and Peterborough, Labour voters had given the LibDems their second preference) the Conservative candidate would have been defeated in the second round (even assuming, charitably, that all the Ukip voters made the Tories their second choice).

So, when given the opportunity to vote for a progressive alliance, the electorate didn’t take it. At least some LibDem and/or Green voters must have chosen the Conservatives as their second preference (and, in Cambridge and Peterborough, some Labour voters must have done so too).

This is shown most clearly in the Tees Valley contest, where there were only four candidates and hence the possible interplay of second preferences between different minor parties can effectively be ruled out. In the first round, Labour’s 39% and the LibDem’s 12% add up to 51%, compared with the Conservatives’ 39% and Ukip’s 9% making a total of 48% (numbers don’t add up to precisely 100% due to rounding, before you ask!). But in the second round, the Tories won by 51% to Labour’s 49%. The LibDem voters could have put the Labour candidate into the mayor’s office with their second preferences, had they wanted to. But not enough of them did want to.

Now, I don’t find this at all surprising. It corresponds with a similar analysis of the 2015 general election, for example. But it still seems to be beyond the grasp of those clinging to straws in the hope that the centrist LibDem voters will somehow prefer Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to Theresa May’s Conservatives.

2016 and all that

Bowie_1983_serious_moonlight_blu

It’s been an interesting year. For some, it’s been interesting in the sense of the apocryphal Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times”. For others, it’s been interesting in a less ironic sense.

Politics and celebrities are two of the staples of the media. So it’s not surprising that big events in both have dominated popular thinking. The unexpected results of both the EU referendum here and the presidential election in the US, combined with a higher than average death toll of genuinely A list musicians, has led many people to think that 2016 has been some kind of apocalyptic nightmare.

In reality, it’s nothing of the sort. Yes, we have lost more leading players from the world of music this year than normal, including one of my own personal favourite artists (David Bowie). But, for all that, it’s within the bounds of statistical variation. And, as has been pointed out elsewhere, much of it is simple demographics. The post-war generation of leading musicians are ageing; we can hardly be shocked when someone such as Leonard Cohen dies at the ripe old age of 86. And those who have had their lives cut unseemingly short have almost all lived self-destructive lives, particularly with drugs and alcohol. A lesson here, maybe, is that youthful excesses have a lasting effect; even if you clean up your life in your middle age the damage is already done.

Outside the shallow world of celebrity and the naval-gazing of politics, though, 2016 has actually been a pretty good year. Globally, the number of people living in absolute poverty continues to fall. And one of the biggest contributors to that is technology: the expansion of low-cost Internet access is one of the biggest contributors to GDP growth in poorer countries.

It’s been good news on the conservation front, too. The Giant Panda is now officially off the endangered list. The number of rhinos poached in South Africa has dropped, and China’s decision to ban trade in ivory has been hailed as a potential game changer for elephants.

Despite continued fighting in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, and terror attacks in Brussels and Berlin, the overall number of people killed by terrorism and warfare have declined slightly from 2015 and the long term trend is still very much downwards. It may not seem apparent from our media’s focus on countries nearer to us, but Africa, the Americas and Asia have all seen a marked drop in armed conflict.

If you want more good news stories, then these articles from Quartz and the Guardian are good starting points. For those who like a more data-oriented approach then the aptly-title Our World in Data has some charts you really should be looking at.

But what about Brexit and Trump? Well, to begin with, not everyone thinks those are bad. I’ll go into both of these in a separate article, but wherever you stand on the issue you can’t ignore the fact that a majority of those voting preferred the UK to leave the EU, and even if Trump didn’t get a majority of the popular vote he clearly won the election under the constitutional system which is currently in force. And even if you are on the other side to the winners in both of those cases, there are still reasons to be optimistic. But that’s for another time. Right now, let’s just be pleased at how 2016 has turned out.

Header image credit: Image by Jeffchat1 via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence. David Bowie performing on the Serious Moonlight Tour, November 193. Which is the tour where I saw him play live, at Milton Keynes Bowl in July 1983. Happy days.

Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign pledges. Some of this will shock you.

These are the ten pledges launched today by Jeremy Corbyn as part of his campaign to retain control of the Labour Party. I thought they’re worth a few comments.

1. A decent job for all, in a decent economy

This seems remarkably lacking in ambition. I’d prefer good jobs, in a strong economy. But I suppose we can thank Jeremy for at least being honest here if he thinks he can’t achieve that.

2. A secure home for everyone

I’m not sure that “secure” is the right word here, either. Prisons are (hopefully) secure. Most people would, I think, prefer to focus on homes being affordable and readily available. I hope the choice of wording isn’t a Freudian slip.

3. Dignity and rights at work

Absolutely, we all want dignity and rights at work. Well, rights, anyway. I’m not so sure we all want dignity. I’d like the right to take a Nerf gun with me and pepper my colleagues with it when I think they’re getting a bit too far up themselves. It may not be dignified, but what the heck. It would make a great right.

4. A properly-funded NHS and social care

I’m pretty sure we’re all in favour of doing things properly, as well.

5. Education for all from cradle to grave

Now this really appeals to me. I left school more than three decades ago, but if education is available all the way to my deathbed, then well – where do I sign up for state-run classes in advanced jQuery and thrash metal guitar?

6. Clean, green energy we can afford

Again, nobody is going to complain about being offered this. But it’s nice to see Jeremy accepting that low carbon energy needs to be affordable.

7. Services run by and for the public

That’s called “free enterprise”. Entrepreneurs like you and me setting up businesses to provide goods and services which meet demand from other people like us. It’s an excellent ambition, and I wholeheartedly applaud Jeremy for endorsing it.

8. Everyone paying their fair share

“You use it, you pay for it”. Seems fair to me. Although, if I’m honest, I actually think we need a bit of unfairness in our tax system. Sometimes people’s circumstances are different, and sometimes they need more than others. As I say to my children sometimes when they complain that it’s unfair to let the younger get more leeway because she’s the younger, or the older get more privileges because she’s older, “it isn’t fair, but it is right”.

9. A society free from prejudice

Much easier said than done, of course. But I do agree that we need more independent thought, and less tribalism, in the UK. We could make a start in our political parties.

10. A just foreign policy that promotes peace

As it happens, this is something that the world as a whole does seem to have been pretty successful in since 1945. But it’s good to see that Jeremy wants to continue with the success of these policies.

Our next Prime Minister – time for Conservatives to decide

Unlike my position on the EU referendum itself, where I deliberately avoided participating in either campaign, I have decided to publicly state who – of the five candidates on offer – I want as the next leader of the Conservative party and, therefore, our next Prime Minister.

This isn’t an easy decision to make. All five candidates have both strengths and weaknesses, and it would be foolish to deny that. But this is the reasoning behind my choice. Looking at all five in turn…

To begin with, the two insurgent challengers, Stephen Crabb and Andrea Leadsom. Both of these have reasons to commend them. They both come across as being intelligent and good at making decisions.

However, they both also lack experience. It’s OK to elect as leader someone relatively inexperienced when in opposition, as they’ve got time to get used to being leader before they need to also be PM (and, if it turns out they’re not up to the job, we have time to get someone else in place before the election). But to take over mid-term while in office, you need someone with plenty of experience of a cabinet level post. Crabb and Leadsom just don’t have that. They may both be good candidates the next time around, but not this time.

I like Michael Gove. I admire his reforming zeal, and I think he’s done a good job at both Education and Justice. But I also think that when he said he wasn’t equipped to be Prime Minister, he was both honest and accurate.

I think Gove would make an excellent Home Secretary. I think he has the necessary One Nation sensibilities to make the right decisions there, and the intellect to come up with creative solutions to some of the department’s more intractable problems. But I think that should be the height of his ambitions.

Had Liam Fox been on the final ballot paper the last time around, instead of either David Davis or David Cameron, I might have supported him then. But I think he is yesterday’s man now. The only possible way he might get my vote is if he came through as the compromise candidate, the one who has both the necessary experience and the Brexit credentials (although, personally, I think the latter is almost entirely unimportant at this stage – we need the best PM, not the one who ticks any particular box).

Which leaves Theresa May. Of the five candidates we have, I think she is head and shoulders above the others in terms of both ability and experience, and there really is no plausible alternative.

Regular readers of my blog may be surprised to find me saying that, since I have been scathing enough about her – or, more precisely, the Home Office’s obsessive authoritarianism – in the past. And I still think that certain sections of the Investigatory Powers Bill – aka the “Snooper’s Charter” – are appallingly inconsistent with a Conservative approach to liberty and freedom.

But a failure to take on the vested interests of a small clique of civil servants is not, in itself, a reason not to support May for the leadership. She, alone of the five candidates, has both extensive experience at cabinet level and the qualities necessary to be Prime Minister.

It may seem to be damning her with faint praise to describe her as the “safe” choice, but safe is what we need right now. We don’t need someone who, on his own admission, is not cut out to be Prime Minister. Nor do we need someone who has no significant experience at the highest level of politics.

Theresa May also commands the support of the largest proportion of Conservative MPs. That alone is not a reason to back her – we ordinary party members have a voice, and a right to our opinion, too. But it is an important factor. The Labour Party is currently giving us a textbook example of what happens when the leader doesn’t command the support of MPs. That may not matter so much for the opposition. But in government, such conflict wouldn’t just be disastrous for the party, it would also be disastrous for the country. We need a new PM that MPs on the government benches are happy to serve under.

So, assuming that Theresa May is on the final ballot paper which goes out to Conservative members, she is who I will be voting for. I would urge my Conservative colleagues and fellow party members to do the same.

The next Prime Minister

Nominations for the Conservative Party leadership election – and, by extension, the internal election for the next Prime Minister – open today and close on Friday. Conservative MPs will whittle down the contenders to a final two, who will then be voted on by the membership as a whole. The precise timetable after that depends on the number of candidates, but we should know the winner by late August or early September.

As a party member, I will have a vote in the final ballot. I’m not going to say who I’ll be backing until I know who I have to choose between. But these are some of the principles which will guide my choice.

Firstly, it needs to be someone who can unite the party and the country.

That may sound like a meaningless platitude which will be uttered by every candidate. But it isn’t, and it matters. We’ve just had a very bruising referendum contest, and it’s important that the new leader is someone who can work with both sides. Someone who will appoint ministers on the basis of ability, not cronyism and patronage.

David Cameron has won two general elections by appealing to the centre ground of British politics. That, too, is an essential attribute of his successor. We need someone that the floating voter is comfortable floating towards. It isn’t enough to rely on Labour’s shortcomings to win an election. We need to be able to offer a positive choice to the ordinary, non-political voter. More than ever, a post-EU Britain needs a one nation government.

Secondly, we need someone who appreciates and encourages the work of grassroots Conservatives at association and branch level.

The new leader of the Conservative Party won’t just be responsible for the parliamentary party. It needs to be someone who recognises that politics doesn’t just happen in Westminster, but in county halls, town halls and civic centres across the country. Someone who makes it easy for me and my colleagues to be proud of what we stand for.

The timetable for any possible hustings will be short, but I want to see the final two candidates making a strong effort to reach out to ordinary members and telling us directly why we should vote for them. That’s another reason why I’m not backing any specific candidate yet. I want to hear what they actually have to say to us.

Finally, I want someone who I can trust with the things that matter to me.

Obviously, every party member will have their own priorities which will reflect their own experience and circumstances. But my choice will be influenced by the things that I care about: a strong commitment to civil liberty and freedom of conscience, an understanding of technology and the value to the UK’s economy of an open Internet, a bias towards evidence-based policy-making, and a preference for localism over a one-size-fits-all approach.

The decisions we will make over the next few weeks will have long-lasting ramifications.

Under normal circumstances, party leadership elections are held at on a timetable intended to give the new leader time to settle in before any really difficult decisions need to be made. That won’t be the case this time.

The incoming Prime Minister will need to get straight to work on our negotiations with the EU. An early general election is also on the cards. That makes it all the more important that we in the party think long and hard about who we want in that role. The potential difference in outcome between the right and wrong choice could not be more stark.

Two tribes go to work


Following the EU referendum, there are, broadly speaking, four groups of people in the UK:

Group A – Hardcore Remain voters, who are not only unhappy with the result but are unwilling to accept the outcome and insist on either flinging insults at Leave voters or actively trying to overturn the result (or both).

Group B – Moderate Remain voters, who are disappointed with the result but are willing to respect the outcome and now want to ensure that any negative effects on a post-EU UK are minimised.

Group C – Hardcore Leave voters, who see this as an opportunity to gloat at their opponents, who don’t care about reconciliation and want to take this opportunity to impose their will on a post-EU Britain.

Group D – Moderate Leave voters, who are pleased to have won but recognise that they only have a slim majority, that there are a lot of people who disagreed with them, and that those views should still be heard.

Whichever way you voted in the referendum, I hope it’s obvious that the B and D “moderate” groups are the ones acting in the UK’s best interests (and, for that matter, the EU’s). Sensible, intelligent people need to cooperate to make sure that the UK’s relationship with the EU is renegotiated to provide the best possible outcome for all parties.

If you’re a Remain supporter, that’s obviously going to be sub-optimal to staying in, but it’s still possible to make the most of a less than ideal situation. If you voted Leave, then compromising on some of your ideals will be worth it to ensure a smooth transition to a post-EU Britain.

It’s time for the two sensible tribes to work together. Ignore the ranters and ravers, the xenophobes and anti-democrats, and concentrate on the future rather than the past. Our future depends on it.

After the referendum

This time tomorrow morning, we will be voting in the EU referendum. By this time the day after that, we should know the result.

So, what happens next?

Obviously, that depends on what the result is. But this is what I want to see, for both options.

If we vote to Remain

Firstly, it’s essential to bear in mind that voting to stay is not voting for the status quo. Nor is it an endorsement of every aspect of the EU and everything that it does. The EU is horribly broken and dysfunctional in very many ways. If we are staying in it, we need to take the lead both in highlighting the problems and coming up with ways to address them.

Secondly, a choice to remain is not an endorsement of the Remain campaign. Some of the ad hominem attacks on Leave campaigners have been truly appalling. If the Remain campaign is victorious, more than anything it needs to follow this up by being gracious.

A vote to stay is not a rejection of the need to change. It just means change in a different way to leaving.

The long term future of the EU needs to work for everybody, not just those who wholeheartedly buy into its vision. That means taking the criticisms of the EU levelled by the Leave campaign seriously, and seeking to address those from within the structure.

If we vote to Leave

A vote to leave is a step into the unknown. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a leap in the dark. The key priorities of the government over the weeks, months and even years that follow a decision to leave will be about how best to secure the long-term interests of the UK.

There are many possible routes forward if we leave. Some of them are as different as the choice between leaving and remaining. And even if we leave, the opinions of those who voted to stay are still relevant in that debate.

A leave vote means a majority want out of the EU. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a majority want out of free trade, or free movement of people, or cross-border consumer protection.

Voting to leave isn’t the end of a process. It’s the start of one. The start of a new Europe that better serves the needs of all the countries in Europe, whether in or out of the EU.

Whatever we choose

No matter which vision for our future wins, both sides have to accept the result.

No carping, no complaining about the other side taking liberties with the campaign. No conspiracy theories. No accusations of ballot rigging. No subtle (or unsubtle) undermining of the will of the majority. No grudges.

Whatever happens, we have to move on. This has been a deeply unpleasant campaign, with very little to be proud of on either side. It’s time to put that behind us and make a commitment to making this decision work. For all of us.

Referendum musings

It’s just over a week to go to the EU referendum, so I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts.

To begin with, let me say what this post is not. I will not tell you how to vote, or try to persuade you which way to vote. And I will not tell you which way I will vote.

There are, however, a number of things which need to be said.

Lies, damned lies and the battle for your vote

The first is that, by and large, the conduct of both sides has been utterly appalling. That doesn’t apply to every individual involved in either campaign, and very many of the grassroots activists on both sides – of which I count many, again on both sides, as friends – have been doing their best to argue their cause in a reasonable manner.

But, still, many of the headline claims made by the leaders of both sides are, at best, pure speculation dressed up as fact or, at worst, outright lies.

We’re doomed, I tell you, all doomed

On the Remain side, the increasingly shrill warnings of economic disaster, rise in terrorism and imminent collapse of civilisation simply do not ring true. By all means, consider a worst case scenario. But a description of the most extreme possible outcomes has to go hand in hand with a realistic assessment of the risk.

If it rains hard enough for long enough, my house could be flooded. We are on the edge of the “thousand year” flood zone. But, realistically, that is very, very unlikely to happen, at least in my lifetime or that of anyone I eventually sell the house to.

The same applies to predictions of what might happen if we leave the EU. It could, theoretically, result in economic disaster. But just saying that it could is insufficient information. To be useful, that has to be part of an overall risk assessment with outcomes ranging from best case to worst case, and with informed and expert predictions of how likely all the various possible outcomes are.

It doesn’t add up

On the Leave side, the repeatedly bandied figure of £350m a week paid to the EU is simply false. And arguing that that’s the right figure to use, because it’s what we would pay if it wasn’t for the rebate, is meaningless. That’s like saying that if I buy a shirt from M&S at 30% off, I should still assess the cost on what I would have paid without the discount. My accountant would laugh at me if I did that.

It’s also simply wrong to say that, whatever we pay to the EU, we could instead spend it on the NHS if we left. That disregards all the money that is currently spent by the EU on things within the UK. The absolute most we could spend on the NHS if we left is the total net cost of EU membership – which is a heck of a lot less than £350m a week. But even that disregards the possibility that leaving the EU may incur other costs which also have to be met. Realistically, this is simply an impossible promise.

Little Britain and Big Brother

The Remain argument that the UK would have to adopt something like the “Swiss model” or the “Norwegian model” to get access to the benefits of the single market if we leave is equally specious.

The UK has a population of 64 million, and a GDP of $2,768 billion (measured in USD as that’s the common unit of comparison). Norway has a population of 5 million, and a GDP of $513 billion. Switzerland has a population of 8 million, and a GDP of $685 billion. In other words, the UK has a population nearly five times that of Norway and Switzerland combined, and a GDP more than double their combined total.

If we leave the EU, we will not need either a “Swiss model” or a “Norwegian model” in our relationship with the remaining EU. We will have a “British model”, negotiated to take account of our economic and population strength. We can’t say for certain what this will look like, but we can be sure it won’t look like anything which currently exists.

Our only goal will be the western shore

On the other hand, leaving the EU will not solve our immigration “problem”. Quite apart from the fact that it is far less of a problem than many people believe – there is absolutely zero evidence that immigrants are squeezing local-born people out of the employment market, for example – the reality is that EU migration is still lower than non-EU migration.

Given that many EU migrants would, if we were not part of the EU, fall into the same categories as the non-EU migrants allowed to come here and would therefore continue to be allowed to come in the future, the idea that we could make a sizeable dent in immigration by leaving is laughable. And that’s assuming we won’t negotiate an agreement with the EU which includes free movement of labour anyway. I strongly suspect we would, because overall, it would be beneficial to us to do so.

The face doesn’t fit

If we disregard the guff from both sides (and there’s an awful lot of it to disregard), though, what are we left with? Can we, as some suggest, make our decision based on the identities of those arguing for either option?

The answer to that is “no”. I’ve previously argued that, when it comes to a general election, you can’t just vote for policies – you have to take account of the perceived competence of those who will implement them as well. But a referendum is the complete opposite. No matter what we decide, we will still have the same government the day after the referendum as before, and we will still have the same options at the next general election.

Voting Remain because you dislike Nigel Farage, or Leave in order to snub David Cameron – or vice versa – is the worst possible reason for making your decision. Voting Leave will not put Ukip in power. Or Jeremy Corbyn, for that matter. Voting Remain is not an endorsement of the current government. The decision we collectively make on 23rd June 2016 will have an effect long after all of us currently active in politics have retired or died. Casting your vote now on the basis of which set of faces you like the most is one of the most mind-numbingly stupid things you could do. So don’t do it.

Making either choice is a decision based on what you, after giving the matter careful consideration, honestly believe is best for the UK in the long run. At least, I hope it is. And that means cutting through the dodgy headlines and looking beyond the faces to try and find the facts.

I’m not, in the space of this article, going to try and give you the facts, beyond those I’ve obliquely referred to already. But I am going to make a few observations.

Break point

After my comment on the behaviour of the campaigners, the second most important thing which must be said is that the EU is badly broken in a number of areas. That fact is, I think, beyond dispute. A full list would be far too long, but the economic sacrifice of Greece on the altar of the Euro and the mismanagement of the migrant crisis are two obvious examples. The question is not “Is there anything wrong with the EU?”. The question is “Can we fix it?”.

In this context, I disagree with the criticism of Jeremy Corbyn for seemingly being lukewarm over the EU, or with Boris Johnson for dithering before coming out for Leave. In both cases, these are the actions you would expect of someone who recognises that there are strong arguments for both options, but that ultimately you have to make a choice between them. I’m not telling you which of Johnson or Corbyn you should vote with, but both of them make a better role model here than those who adopted a knee-jerk position for either Remain or Leave right from the off.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

The reality is that there are some very good arguments on both sides. Anyone who doesn’t recognise that simply hasn’t thought about the issue in any great detail. Equally, there are some very bad arguments on both sides. And the tragedy is that the campaign has seemingly focused on the bad arguments rather than the good ones.

The EU is, as I’ve said, badly broken in many respects, and if it continues down some of those broken pathways it has the potential to do a great deal of harm. But it has also been extremely beneficial in very many ways, and the UK has gained a lot from our membership. Again, I will say that anyone who does not recognise the truth of both these statements has too little understanding to make an informed choice.

Questions, questions

Ultimately, everyone’s decision has to be their own. I’m not telling anyone how to vote, or how I intend to vote. But I will pose a set of questions that will inform my own choice. Hopefully, they will be helpful to others as well. Those questions are:

  1. Are the EU’s structural flaws beyond repair, or can they be fixed?
  2. In the long term – not just the next few years, but for the next generation – which option offers the best prospects for our economic security and freedom?
  3. Is a decision to leave influenced by the “grass is always greener” fallacy?
  4. Conversely, does a decision to stay reflect the sunk costs fallacy?
  5. Which decision will I be most proud of explaining to my children, and why?

I’ll leave it to you to answer those questions for yourselves, or to pose others. I may come back after the vote and explain how I answered them.