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The EU is undemocratic and run in the interests of business. But it’s our least-worst option right now

The reason why nobody in either the Leave or the Remain camp can come up with a strong and positive story is that right now there is no strong, positive story to tell.

‘‘Brexit” is an ugly, embarrassing word for a ugly, embarrassing debate. After months of bad arguments in bad faith from bad actors running campaigns of confusion and fear with both eyes on their sordid political career, I don’t want to write about this any more than you want to read about it. Yet here I am, about to try to persuade you to vote for Britain to remain in the EU, even though we’d all rather stay indoors and stare into the abyss until it starts staring back. I know I would. Still, I’m going to drag myself out on 23 June anyway, because more than anything, I don’t want to be stuck on an island with Boris Johnson.

I could tell you a story about Europe that might tug the sails of your heart, driving you to the polls on a clear day with the wind in the right direction. I could tell you a story about noble ideals of unity across borders and cultures, dreamt up in the ruins of two world-ravaging wars – but those ideals are currently burning in the banlieue of Paris and drowning in the Mediterranean. The truth is duller and more dispiriting: the EU, rather like the British government, is a structurally undemocratic institution that is run in the interests of business. And the more terrible truth is that it is the best option we have right now.

That is what it means to be a political writer today. We have to encourage people to pick the least-worst option in order to avert immediate disaster. Leaving Europe without a clear plan for what happens next would be a stupid idea even if the most brutally incompetent Conservatives ever to disgrace the unquiet spirit of Margaret Thatcher weren’t running the country.

Brexit has become a terrible game of shag, marry, kill. Who disgusts you less? George Osborne or Boris Johnson? David Cameron or Donald Trump? Would you rather be ruled by ruthless, right-wing ideologues who aren’t even good at being ruthless, right-wing ideologues, or by crypto-­fascists with cartoon haircuts, laughing as they drive this clown car over the precipice of sanity? Reader, this demeans us both.

The reason why nobody in either the Leave or the Remain camp can come up with a strong and positive story is that right now there is no strong, positive story to tell. To speak of what is happening in Europe as a “democratic deficit” is to call a sucking chest wound a graze.

The injuries that have been done to the body politic by decades of neoliberal gerry­mandering, of power shunted towards an unaccountable centre – these injuries are profound and they are systemic. They cannot be healed by stepping out of the EU. Nor can a union that is engaged in driving Greece back into fascism be trusted to rectify the damage.

Hope, in this referendum, has been taken off the table. In its absence, both camps have resorted to fear. Team Brexit has playground xenophobia on its side and that’s a jingle it is hard to get out of your head. It’s a campaign so duplicitous and so nakedly reliant on what it imagines to be the worst impulses of its target demographic that employing Nigel Farage as a figurehead actually looks like a sensible idea.

There is no heroism on either side of this sorry mess of a debate, no passion at play beyond the reflexes of prejudice and panic. This is an embarrassing sideshow written hastily by talentless fools in back rooms. You can force us to watch but you cannot make us applaud.

Britain is in political chaos. Call to mind your least stable friend, the one who has spent his or her entire life being messed about by unremitting bastards and now treats self-sabotage as a competitive sport. Imagine that person on a wild bender, full of booze and pills, reeling and yammering and mooning passing tourists before sitting down, head between knees, wailing that they don’t know what to do any more about anything. Now imagine asking that person to make an important life decision, right then and there. That’s what the EU referendum is. It’s not that the people of Britain don’t deserve agency. It’s that we need to drink some water and have a sit-down first, because we’re sick of soundbites and sour politics and we know, with the kind of creeping certainty that arrives at the end of a night of bad decisions, that it’s going to hurt in the morning.

And we won’t be the only ones hurting. A British exit from the EU – forgive me but I refuse to type that God-awful portmanteau word more often than I have to – would bring pain to millions of European citizens who live in Britain and the 1.3 million Britons who have made their home abroad.

If our politicians had an ounce of respect for the people who elected them, they would explain precisely what they plan to do if the country does cede from the Union. Right now, all we know is that Michael Gove might be allowed to write the constitution, which is about as sensible as signing over the nuclear programme to Skeletor, without the exciting He-Man theme tune or, thank God, the Spandex.

Should the British people have more of a say over the way their country is run? Absolutely. But that choice is not on offer at the polls this summer.

It is OK to want more than this ugly, ­demeaning excuse for realpolitik. I think I speak for a great many fed-up British people when I say that I do not want to secede from Europe. I want to secede from modernity. I want out of a notionally representative system that ceased long ago to ­represent the will of the people.

I will be voting for Remain on 23 June and so should you, if you care for the immediate health and safety of your friends and neighbours. But I won’t be doing it with a spring in my step and a song in my heart, and you don’t have to, either.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 09 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe

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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.