I wonder how much is the EU referendum costing; not in terms of actual pounds spent – which I’m sure the electoral commission are keeping an eye on – but in terms of people hours. How many person hours have been spent on researching and writing the pro- and anti-EU material, printing it, distributing it, going door to door to promote it? However many hours it is it’s a drop compared to the number of hours the 50-odd million adults in the UK have spent arguing the toss in the pub or online, retweeting and sharing social media posts, seething with rage at the idiotic views of somebody they used to think was a good colleague/friend/soul-mate, or just taking the fliers that have come through their door out to the bin. It must be billions of hours.
Imagine if we’d done something good with them.
I’m not suggesting that we could have turned all of those people into cancer-curing scientists or even that those hours could have been spent on selfless charity work, but they could have done better than re-heat the same arguments on smaller and smaller scales, like some fact-free fractal. They could have read, or watched a classic film, spent some time with their kids or their partner, taken somebody on a first date, tried ice-skating, watched a sunset, stuck an old comedy sketch on YouTube and had a laugh.
We’ve spent a billion hours making the UK a more divisive and angrier place.
This isn’t just about the EU referendum, though. What about the Trump/Clinton saga that’s about to be unleashed? We, as a species, have already easily burned more than a billion people hours just getting to the stage of knowing who’s going to be in the presidential race and we’re going to burn another couple of billion working out which of them gets to live in the White House.
Just to make it absurd, the whole presidential contest is essentially to see who gets to sit in their country’s passenger seat; the president may get as good a view of the road ahead as anyone else, and may be in a prime position to make suggestions to the driver, but the only control they can reach is the handbrake.
You can’t tell me if the job of president just went to the first person in America to shout “Shotgun!” on the 8th November that the outcome would be any worse (and, as it’s the USA, may indeed suddenly afford much needed secret service protection to someone facing an actual shotgun).
A cornerstone of the EU ‘Leave’ campaign’s argument has been that the EU is undemocratic, but I’m coming to the opinion that we should embrace ‘undemocratic’. That ‘undemocratic’ is good. Back in the mid-nineties, when I first discovered the on-line, unmoderated, forums of Usenet, I thought that the Internet was going to bring us the dream of true democracy. Why would we need elected representatives when everyone had an on-line presence, could find the facts for themselves and vote directly? I imagined a future country with a civil service, but no government; where the people’s will could be read instantly and enacted.
Twenty years of arguing the toss on-line later I can only cringe in horror thinking about what my utopia would have been like. If an independence referendum and an EU membership referendum have cost us billions of hours they have at least shown the frightening speed with which tribalism overtakes policy. This is democracy, and we’re fucking terrible at it!
The anger, the wasted years, the salt we’re willingly pouring into wounds should all act as stark reminders that democracy is too important to be left to the public. Whatever challenges face us after the EU referendum vote we should face them with a new found respect for our elected representatives. God knows they’re not perfect, but they do keep the country running without setting brother against brother, and we, in return, have managed to make which party you vote for something that’s vaguely taboo (in contrast to the vulgar referendum, where the voting intention question now has to come somewhere between the first handshake and asking if they’d like a cup of tea).
Let’s not let the billions of hours poured into this referendum be a total waste. Let’s learn that this is a poor way to answer important questions. Let’s take away the painful lesson that the price of civilised freedom is eternal politicians.