‘We are all just prisoners here, of our own device’

If it’s a second (sorry, ‘final’) referendum you all want, by all means, go for it. You can always call for a third (but equally ‘final’) referendum if the second one goes the same way as the first

Anti-Brexit protestors outside Westminster
Anti-Brexit protestors outside Westminster

I won’t lay claim to being the first person in the universe to spot an uncanny resemblance between the phenomenon called ‘Brexit’, and the lyrics of a certain 1977 Eagles’ hit single called ‘Hotel California’. In particular, the line: ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.’

A while back, I used that as a headline to describe the increasingly dangerous precedent that Britain’s failed attempt to pull out of the European Union was about to set. A situation whereby Britain would be permitted to ‘check out’… only to find it increasingly impossible to actually leave the hotel.

But there is another, less often-quoted line from the same song: the one I used as a headline for this article (hint: it’s in big bold letters, at the top of the page). There is, after all, a word for people who want to leave a particular institution, but find they are forcibly prevented from ever doing so. They’re called ‘prisoners’… and the institution in question is called a ‘prison’.

This analogy assumes even greater precision when you consider the specific reasons why the British people are finding it so hard to leave the EU. What happens to real prisoners who try to escape from real prisons, as a rule? Some might be shot by an armed guard, as they are caught in the spotlight trying to scale the prison wall. Or eaten by sharks, as they try to swim the channel towards freedom. Or sprain their ankle (if they’re Dustin Hoffman), only to eventually get their entire leg sawn off, without anaesthetic, by Steve McQueen.

Others still might be suspended upside-down, and beaten on the bare soles of their feet by a psychotic Turkish prison director played by Paul L. Smith. Their precise fate will obviously vary from prison to prison (just as they do from ‘prison-escape movie’ to ‘prison-escape movie’); but whatever the circumstances – and maybe with one or two exceptions here and there – it is invariably ‘fear of the consequences’ that determines their inability to ever leave. 

The more I look at what’s happening between Britain and the EU today, the less of a difference I see between those two scenarios. And it started long before that June 2016 vote even took place. Remember the actual arguments (such that they were) that characterised the ‘Remain’ campaign before the referendum? It was never, ‘we should remain in the EU, because the EU is a fantastic thing we are all proud to be part of’. On the contrary, it always sounded like: ‘The EU? Yeah, it’s kind of crappy, we can all see that… but let’s face it: we may as well stay in, because otherwise, we’d all be DOOMED’.

Hardly the most exciting, enticing and invigorating argument you’ve ever heard in your life, is it? Then they all wondered how on earth they managed to lose that referendum in the first place…

Well, it was for the exact same reason that the result did not surprise me in the slightest (despite the rather significant fact that the polls had earlier pointed in the opposite direction). Even here in Malta, we have enough experience of our own to know that ‘scare tactics’, alone, rarely achieve the intended effect. Alfred Sant’s ‘doom and gloom’ anti-accession campaign did not stop a convincing majority from voting ‘Yes’ in the 2003 EU referendum. And Simon Busuttil’s dire warnings that Malta was about to ‘crash straight into a brick wall’ did even less to deter a larger majority from electing a Labour government in 2013.

So, I suppose the first lesson to be learnt from the Brexit referendum fiasco is that… ‘fear doesn’t work’. And it’s not just a lesson for Brits. (Seriously guys: get this into your heads once and for all.) Nor is it enough to try and persuade with logical arguments – even if your arguments are indeed highly convincing (in this case, quite frankly, they were not.) In order to successfully mobilise large swathes of voters, you have to also fire up their enthusiasm; give them something to believe in; to want to believe in… in a nutshell, you have to whet their appetite with the imagined taste of what is you are actually holding up for them to all salivate over.

But to do that, you have to actually have something in your hand to dangle before their eyes. Get it now?

Oh, and another small thing to keep in mind is that: while it’s OK (I guess) to make a mistake once… making the same mistake twice in quick succession is something else entirely. The first referendum didn’t settle the issue? Never fear: we’ll have a second referendum. And we’ll even run the ‘Remain’ campaign in the exact same way as when we lost the first one: you know, just to make darn sure it all goes as horribly, awfully and cataclysmically wrong as possible. I mean… isn’t that how things are done?

Meanwhile, just to make this truly bizarre scenario that much more surreal: some people are even describing this ‘second referendum’ in terms of… ‘a final say’.

Hmm. Much as I hate to sound like a typical Grammar Nazi (‘Ich? Eine Nazi-Grammatik-Ubermench? NEIN!’) there is a teenie-weenie little mistake in that slogan. There is no such thing as ‘a’ final say. If the say is final, by definition there can be no other say in future. It’s a bit like Highlander: ‘there can only be one’. So it’s ‘THE’ final say – just as it is ‘THE (not ‘A’) Final Judgment’ that will decide whether one eventually goes to heaven or hell (or purgatory, or limbo, or whatever).

But in any case: assuming that a second referendum is indeed held on the same matter… why should the second vote be the one that settles the issue, and not the first? Or, for that matter, the third? Fourth? Fifth? And so on, ad infinitum?

Whenever I ask that question, I get a random assortment of (roughly) the following answers:

  1. Because the first vote was taken before we had a clear picture of what the ‘Leave’ option actually entails.
  2. Because the ‘Leave’ campaign lied (which, for some obscure reason, seems to also mean that the result of the first referendum ‘doesn’t count’)
  3. Because the consequences of sticking to that result are in themselves so outrageously catastrophic, that they justify not only the overhaul of a single democratic decision... but, if necessary, the wholesale dismantling of Democracy itself: lock, stock and two smokin’ barrels.

What you very rarely hear, on the other hand, is the stark, brutal truth: i.e., that the people who voted to Remain (and even then, probably only a small but vociferous minority) are adamant on not accepting any referendum result that runs even remotely counter to their own political convictions. Simple as that, really…

Either way, all four of those options – including the stark, brutal truth – can only add up to the death knell of the entire democratic process. (Please note: ‘THE’ death-knell, not ‘A’. Death is something that happens only once, too…)

Let’s take them one by one.

  1. Any referendum on Brexit will have to be taken – regardless how many times – in the absence of any clear picture of at least one of the possible outcomes. As things stand today, no one in Europe can possibly tell us what shape this Union will find itself the year after next. And I mean that literally: the European Union is poised for massive, radical changes after next year’s Commissioner reshuffle… already there is talk of a ‘common European army’, and the establishment of a ‘United States of Europe’. Some of the possible future shapers of this ‘new EU’ are even talking about ‘renegotiating treaties’ (German Commission President hopeful Manfred Weber) and ‘turning the EU into an empire’ (former French President Macron).  And there will also be a second enlargement (and, therefore, a whole new treaty to sign without reading the fine print). So, whatever happens, really… the EU of five years’ time will definitely not be the same EU we joined in 2013. And I honestly can’t imagine how utterly different it might be in, say, 50 years’ time. For all we know, by then it might have blown itself to a billion pieces in a pan-European civil war.

So ironically – mega-ironically, even – we actually have a much clearer picture of Britain’s future outside the EU right now, than inside it.

  1. This argument is particularly obnoxious, because it simply assumes that everyone who voted for Brexit was swayed by arguments brought forward by the ‘Leave’ campaign. How utterly insulting is that? And how utterly ignorant of how such things as ‘elections’ and ‘referenda’ actually work, too.

Unlike the holders of this particular belief, I can’t talk on behalf of any British ‘Leave’ voter: still less, all of them put together. But I’d still be willing to bet that untold thousands of British voters would have flocked to the polls, all fiercely determined to vote for Brexit… without having listened a single word uttered by either side throughout the entire campaign.After all, the question on the ballot paper was not: ‘Do you believe the arguments of the ‘Leave’ campaign?’. It was more like: ‘Do you want to stay in the blinking EU, or do you want to blinking leave it? Yes, or blinking No?’ How, then, can the answer possibly be tied to a question that was never asked of voters at all?

(One other small addendum to that: if the ‘Leave’ campaign lied – and I’ve no doubt it did – well, the ‘Remain’ campaign was not exactly a fountain of truth, either. They denied that the EU was planning to form a common army. And oh, look: it is. So, would the result have been equally inadmissible, had the referendum gone the other way…?)

I won’t even bother with either ‘c’ or the stark, brutal truth, because the seriousness of the implications is writ large in both cases. There are many roads that lead to the loss of democracy… but most of them involve a small coterie of ‘enlightened’ individuals who feel they know better than everybody else, and are therefore entitled to simply take decisions on behalf of other people, because… ‘they know best’.

But no matter. If it’s a second (sorry, ‘final’) referendum you all want, by all means, go for it. You can always call for a third (but equally ‘final’) referendum if the second one goes the same way as the first: even though – then as now – there are polls suggesting it won’t.  (Remember? I said that part was significant…) So please: don’t let little me stand in the way of history repeating itself. After all, I’m just an enlightened superior being who is always absolutely right about absolutely everything… so no need to pay me any mind.

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