Don’t you think it would be a good idea to ban all our wretched politicians from the EU referendum debate? It’s far too important to be left to them, so I suggest we lock them in a cupboard and keep them there until after 23 June.
Alas, no chance. But together with a former BBC colleague, I’ve done the next best thing. We’ve produced a series of referendum podcasts and made them politician-free zones. We got together a handful of experts, and a citizens’ jury of 10 men and women from all walks of life, and, guess what, not an insult or a snide remark passed between them. You can download the podcasts here, free of charge, and listen to them at your leisure. In the car, in the kitchen, on your bike or in bed. Wherever, and whenever, suits you best. We’ve even included a link to the government’s voter registration page, just in case you haven’t registered yet. The deadline is 7 June.
We recorded four podcasts over a blisteringly hot weekend a couple of weeks ago, and it was an exercise that produced some fascinating exchanges. Each podcast tackles a separate issue – the economy, immigration, laws and regulations, and sovereignty and national identity – and after the jurors had a chance to question each of the experts, they discussed the issues among themselves.
Did they come to a common view? They did not. Did they end up yelling at each other? Likewise. It was good-tempered, thoughtful and makes for a compelling listen. It was the kind of thing that broadcasters should be doing much more often but tend not to, for fear of being boring.
That’s why we did it on our own. No one paid us, no one backed us, and there was no one behind the scenes trying to steer us in any particular direction. We didn’t take a vote at the end because it wasn’t that kind of discussion, but several jurors said they had changed their minds as a result of the weekend’s debates. Who knows? Perhaps you will too, if you get a chance to listen to them.
So why have the broadcasters’ referendum debates and discussions so far been so singularly unhelpful? Mainly, I think, because they insist on including politicians, and for politicians, the referendum is all about winners and losers: will B Johnson emerge in a stronger position than G Osborne? Is D Cameron ever going to talk to M Gove again? Will anyone ever talk to N Farage again?
They call it positioning, and for a politician, it matters far more than such insignificant issues as the future prosperity of the UK and its relations with its closest neighbours.
Towards the end of our podcast about sovereignty and national identity, I asked our jurors the question that seems to me to be at the heart of the whole referendum debate: Is the UK more likely to be the sort of country you want it to be as a member of the EU, or outside it?
When people tell me that they want more facts about the EU, I think they risk misunderstanding the nature of the question we’re being asked to answer. Of course, the facts matter – and I find it deeply depressing that so many politicians seem perfectly happy to twist, mis-state or simply ignore the facts. But on 23 June, we’re being asked to make a judgement about the future, and facts about the future, by their very nature, are hard to come by.
If you do want more facts, however, I can recommend the excellent website FullFact.org. And a reminder: if you are not yet on the electoral roll, there is still time to register: you can do it online here, and the deadline is midnight on 7 June.
Oh, did I mention? Our EUTheJury podcasts are available here. I hope you get a chance to listen to them, and to pass them on to as many people as possible. They are guaranteed suitable for anyone with a politician allergy.