Thinking Out Loud

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It’s a good thing polling day is nearly upon us; things are getting too meta even for me. I think we’re now onto critcisms of the tone of accusations of lowering the tone of the debate.

In the reactions to the ‘breaking point’ poster we had Remain, whose leading lights including Cameron still officially endorse or at least aspire towards the Conservative ‘tens of thousands’ pledge, and Vote Leave, which now endorses a points-based system not a world away from UKIP’s own immigration policy, competing to fall into Farage’s trap first: he now gets to present himself as the only one unsqueamish enough not merely to talk a good game but to stare matters in the face.

In a way, though, this kind of abstracted debate is fitting. Nations, peoples, publics, when they develop organically, do so in ways that escape the schematic theorising of political science and philosophy. Every nation is a legend in its own lifetime. They have to be; the alternative is a marriage of convenience, and what’s convenient will always change in time.

Conceptually we play with toy states, social contracts nobody actually signed: it’s easy to see how you might start with something like that and end up deciding that states should be readily agglutinative, since universal human reason is supposed to come already built in. The real accretions of history are strange, surprising, crooked; it belongs to no possible theory of institutions that Britain should have a royal stamp collection. Yet could there be anything more perfectly British?

The intellectual and administrative thinkers who ponder deliberative democracy and so on have not, I think, hugely enjoyed this period of democractic deliberation in all its splendid unruliness. I’ve already seen a defence of the European Union which talks of ‘building new publics’ around transnational issues: the kind of thing that could imply sheer engaged campaigning, but in the context of the EU’s institutions looks far, far removed from anything resembling civic grassroots. I’m hardly a poster child for anti-elitism, less still for raging against intellectualism; but I think there’s a heavy risk of creating echo chambers and Potemkin villages, bureaucratic attempts to imbue theoretical templates with life. Then the real anti-elitists turn up, in anger.

I’m not honestly sure whether Leave’s appeals to sovereignty reflect a deeper understanding than Remain’s; though no doubt making a largely pragmatic argument was the right approach for nearly all my countrymen. I am convinced, however, that there is a deeper understanding to be had.

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