Thursday 23 May 2019

Brexit debate and US presidential race are fuelled by toxic politics

While Cameron and the Remain advocates have won the economic argument, the tragedy is that people are more motivated by emotive issues, such as immigration (Stock picture)
While Cameron and the Remain advocates have won the economic argument, the tragedy is that people are more motivated by emotive issues, such as immigration (Stock picture)

Liz O'Donnell

As polls narrow in favour of a Brexit and the prospect looms of seismic political disruption on these islands, is it time to panic? It is certainly time for some serious interventions by people of influence.

Former British prime minister John Major's entry into the fray was timely and helpful. He was right to call out those on the Leave side, particularly in his own party, for their tactics of deliberately misleading the public for political gain. But more of the same is needed over the next critical two weeks if disaster is to be averted. Maybe an eve-of-poll speech by the Queen? What can be more reassuring for those fretting about sovereignty than a nod from the Sovereign? It would have to be her own decision of course, but it would be a game-changer, particularly for senior citizens.

The trouble is that the directional dial in favour of a Leave vote has been steady and there may not be enough time to reverse it by polling day. While Cameron and the 'Remain' advocates have won the economic argument, the tragedy is that people are more motivated by emotive issues, such as immigration and a perceived loss of control and independence.

Under the misleading guise of 'uncontrolled migration', fear and prejudice has been fomented. In recent exchanges, Nigel Farage of Ukip forecast that if immigration continues at present levels into the UK, the population will be 80 million by 2040. He went on to gloat to the European Parliament that a Brexit will herald the breakup of the entire European project. Never mind the truth, feel the fear.

The elderly, who are more likely to vote, are firm leavers, while the young, who have the greatest stake in the outcome, are less likely to turn out. Mindful of harvesting the youth vote, the deadline to register this week was extended for 36 hours when the online register crashed. The Irish Government has done as much as is diplomatically appropriate to get out the Irish Remain vote. Ministers and diplomats have campaigned against Brexit, saying it would be detrimental to Ireland's strategic national interests.

The campaign in the UK has been extraordinary in many ways. The characters on the Leave side, like Farage and the bombastic Boris Johnson, are colourful, and if it wasn't so serious, have at times bordered on the comical. Tory males have dominated the debate, eclipsing the perspective of women. The Labour campaign, despite the efforts of Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock, has been ineffectual. In a poll, more than 40pc of Labour voters were unsure what the party position was. This must be addressed in the final weeks by Jeremy Corbyn, whose efforts have been lacklustre.

Vox pops are worryingly consistent. While the politicians slug it out, respectively trading doom-laden economic and migration predictions, ordinary people appear either firmly in the Leave camp, with strong views, or "undecided and unsure".

For example, there seems scant realisation among the population, even those on the Leave side, that a Brexit would probably trigger the break-up of the United Kingdom, with all the political upheaval such a development would involve. Nor is there any clarity about how the government of the day can minimise or frame the extent of the Brexit by legislation in the Commons.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland the DUP, while aligned with the Leave side, by instinct and conservativism, is not as voluble as might be expected. There is quiet satisfaction that the majority of voters in Northern Ireland will vote to remain in the EU, for compelling economic and trade reasons. Farmers, in particular, know full well the extent to which their livelihoods depend on being in the EU. It would be a regrettable step back in time, psychologically and politically, to have a border with the Republic reinstated.

Apart from ending the conflict, an economic dividend of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process was to blur the border and to stimulate north-south trade without border controls and tariffs, both of which would be inevitable in the event of a Brexit.

Politics has become more normalised now that the UUP, SDLP and the Alliance Party have taken up opposition to the Northern Ireland Executive, comprised of the DUP and Sinn Féin. This is a welcome sign of maturity; it would be a backward step and divisive to have the disruption of a Brexit.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is fighting for his political life. He is regularly accused of being elitist, out of touch with ordinary people and an insider. Adversaries, particularly in his own party, are pandering to the worst fears of disaffected and anti-establishment voters.

This anti-establishment sentiment and demagoguery is fuelling Euroscepticism in Europe. And a similar phenomenon has emerged in the United States which threatens to upend traditional American values.

Donald Trump's controversial and at times unhinged persona and political rhetoric has trounced all comers and won him the presidential nomination for the Republican Party. The ultimate contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton is set to be the most vicious and personal in US political history.

It appears the forces of ignorance and anti-intellectualism have been unleashed into democratic politics. Decorum and ethics have been jettisoned even before the presidential race proper kicks off. Clinton's historic achievement of being the first female Democratic nominee for the presidency has been hard won.

But when it comes to showing courage under fire, the doggedly impressive Bernie Sanders has brought out the best in her. The prospect of Trump winning the presidential election is enough to induce head-hanging despair. But I am assured by a seasoned Democrat number cruncher that a Trump victory is unlikely in November, given it is estimated that Clinton will win more electoral college votes. Those votes are allocated on the basis of population; so, if Clinton wins those key large states as predicted, the maths will deliver the victory.

Yet qualms persist; a period of toxic politics lies ahead. In the UK, there is a feeling that anything could happen. In the US, it is a similar story of unknown outcomes. We in Ireland, who are so entwined with both countries, can but watch and worry.

Irish Independent

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