Outlandish claims over the EU have pulled the country down to a pugnacious level of debate

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 16 June 2016 in Editor's note

The EU referendum campaign has succeeded in diminishing a critically important debate 

A week out from the EU referendum and it descended into a full blown Benny Hill-style farce encapsulated by the bizarre watery clash on the River Thames between a Brexit armada and a smaller flotilla for Remain.

The floating protest led by UKIP’s Nigel Farage had been organised by Scottish skippers as part of the Fishing for Leave campaign with the intention of sailing up the Thames and past the Houses of Parliament just as David Cameron was answering Prime Minister’s Questions.

But the fleet of 30 or 40 boats was met by an opposing mini squadron of rubber dinghies and a larger boat flying an ‘In’ flag, with ageing rocker Bob Geldof proudly at the helm, armed with a megaphone and a large PA system.


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“You are no fisherman’s friend,” the Boomtown Rat screamed at Farage as the 1980s Chicago hit ‘If you Leave Me Now’ blasted out from the giant speakers behind him.

There were reports of brief skirmishes, insults traded and then there were hose pipes deployed. It was the Dad’s Army of political discourse and it made me cringe.

This is what it has come to. A referendum sparked by a Tory prime minister, spooked by growing dissent on his own side amid a rising threat from UKIP, has succeeded in diminishing a critically serious and long overdue debate to water pistols at dawn.

And with increasingly outlandish claims about the consequences of staying in or coming out of the EU being espoused by the day, this referendum has pulled the country down to a pugnacious level of intercourse that has infantilised what should be a sober and fact-filled conversation about the future direction of the UK.

I’m ashamed of the depths that both campaigns have sunk to. And with the polls on a knife-edge and so many of us still to decide, people will no doubt be wondering which of the ills is the greater.

But for me, there’s a personal truth, in that I wouldn’t be writing this column if it wasn’t for the EU.

Back in 1985 I applied for a trainee journalism job on a community newspaper in Edinburgh. It was part of an innovative scheme funded by what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC) to get women from disadvantaged backgrounds into what were predominantly male-dominated industries. My post was just one of four that the EEC funded open only to women – a discrimination that would surely now be threatened with that catch-all of ‘I’ll take you to Europe’.

Wester Hailes was, and still is, one of Edinburgh’s most deprived housing estates and working there in the mid-1980s meant I cut my teeth on stories that reflected a society with a growing drug problem, rising poverty and the emergence of the social and medical issues related to HIV and Aids. This undoubtedly helped shape the kind of journalist I went on to become. And there was, of course, the added attraction of being one of the highest paid trainee journalists in Scotland – thanks to Europe.

At the time, Wester Hailes was dubbed ‘Treasure Island’ because of the vast amount of public funds that were poured into it in an attempt to right the wrongs of economic failure and of its original planning and design.

While there, I witnessed some of the best and worst of the consequences of European membership. European-funded job creation may have been well intentioned, focused as it was on hard-to-reach groups, but it too often settled on people like me. Funding for everything from community groups to adventure playgrounds offered a short-term solution to deep-seated problems but helped create a dependency culture that was, and remains, hard to shift. The effects, too, of Brussels-born agricultural policies might have given a quick fix to the poor who were gifted huge quantities of beef, milk and cheese in an attempt to shift the ridiculous food mountains, but at what cost to farming?

I clearly have much to personally and professionally thank our country’s collaboration with Europe for but I find myself torn.

I don’t identify with the dog-whistle politics employed by some on the Brexit side who use spurious economic arguments to justify what they really mean which is basically, a desire to return to a Britain in which foreigners are not welcome.

But neither do I feel comfortable that the issue of immigration has never been properly addressed by the left.

I write this column as the devastating news comes of the murder of the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, Jo Cox. Jo was passionate about EU membership – she was joyfully part of last week’s Remain flotilla. She was also unafraid of talking about immigration and embracing the value that she believed that immigrants brought.

It’s too soon to answer the evil that has robbed two children of their mum and a husband of his love but as we go to the polls, we could do her the justice of listening to the words she delivered in her maiden speech in the House of Commons just last year.

“While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

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