A film about a referendum

Chile the UK and EU: compare and contrast

Chile 1988Chile 1988
In 1988 due to political pressure from world leaders Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte, usually referred to as President Augusto Pinochet, was forced to hold a referendum on his leadership. As a General in the Chilean Army but supported by fellow officers in the Navy, Air Force and Police he had taken power in 1973 by force from the elected Socialist President Salvador Allende.The years 1973 - 1988 were a disaster for many Chileans, the armed services and police were brutal there was no free press and massive corruption.

The film by Pablo Larraín, born in Chile in 1973, is about, René, a young advertising executive and short film maker who is working for the NO campaign, the consortium who wish to see an end to the hated Pinochet. Life in Chile in 1988 was never easy or without complications. René as a junior partner in the advertising agency finds his boss works for the YES campaign but this never shows itself as a problem, typical of the many absurdities the Chilean people had to cope with. And quite a mild form of irritant when placed alongside the more brutal and sometimes lethal possibilities that could come their way. The 1988 Chilean referendum was by no means the first political campaign to use advertising techniques. Starting in 1973 in France, referendums on political matters have become common across what we now call the EU, and by 1988 so were commercial style campaigning methods. Many people in the UK will remember the 1975 referendum on continued membership of the EEC, which had begun in 1973 without any direct consultation with the public.

This brings us to the compare and contrast bit. Pinochet was a dictator with a lot at stake and he had no doubt but that he would win.. As each side of the debate, the YES and NO, had 15 minutes on Chilean state television to present their opinion. But the YES side had the rest of the airtime as well! The TV campaign consisted of 27 nights of television advertisements at peak time. The UK's 1975 referendum was a good deal less than even handed in terms of the money available to each side. The YES campaign not only had more money but our state broadcaster, the BBC, was as lopsided as ever in its approach. It still is. Just a few weeks ago the sainted John Humphrys on prime time wondered aloud if it would it be 'mad' to leave the EU. This was not 'dog whistle' stuff but loud and clear as subtleties elude Humphrys.

This is what is so funny about the BBC. Back in 1988 it would have been loudly tutting and puffing on our behalf as it watched Pinochet. He was a crook and dictator and we were British, better and proud, what a difference 25 years can make! Also Pinochet accepted, though reluctantly, the result. The NO side won and he left office. But now when the 'wrong' result follows an EU referendum it's standard practise that the population of the errant nation is given a second chance to get it right. And no sound of tutting or puffing is heard. So what happened there?

It's the same when the state resorts to violence. In his film Larrain included authentic footage of the Chilean authorities beating up protestors. Such grainy black and white films take us back to the time when these scenes from South American countries were common. We watched the TV and smugly concluded that, 'it could never happen here'. But the civil disruption we see happening in Athens, and other EU countries, has by virtue of us being members of the same EU brought it 'closer to home'. It is a fact that 'protecting' the state is what the authorities do, all of them.

With Pinochet the arrogance of a dictator served him badly. It told him he was going to win the referendum, he really did think he was popular. With the EU they take no such chances, although they are equally as arrogant. From the start the EU knew it would be risky to fully involve the public in decision making. The current, unelected, President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso has stated -

Governments are not always right. If governments were always right we would not have the situation that we have today. Decisions taken by the most democratic institutions in the world are very often wrong.

The translation here is simple, never trust the people. Barroso began his political life in Portugal under a dictator and for a while was a Maoist. This man speaks with both experience and authority.

John Bull? NO!John Bull? NO!

It is said we will get a referendum here in the UK on our continued membership of the EU. But then if we don't the present crop of world leaders look as if they could not care about this. Barack Obama for one is quite happy for us to remain part of the EU whatever the democratic shortcomings are; and has, in so many words, said so. The moral case for better democracy seems to have lost its appeal. Also whatever the promises made by David Cameron the fact is he has shown he can U-turn on just about any subject he chooses.

So if the UK does get the opportunity to vote, how might it go? Leaving aside the question of even-handedness, as that won't happen, it will be much as in Chile. Those wishing us to stay in the EU will rely heavily on the fear factor. They are doing it now. This could be their first mistake. With Pinochet in 1988 'it could get worse' was not much of a platform upon which to build. It's the same in the UK today. As time has moved on all populations around the world have become bolder and more critical of the state. They have become more demanding too, the status quo is no longer good enough for them they want more.

How could the UK, 'get worse'? It's bad enough already! Because of the EU we cannot control our own economy. There has been a financial downturn going on since 2008 but we cannot insulate ourselves from it. We are not only forced to suffer in tandem with the countries that have behaved in a manner that does not suit our economy but forced to help bail them out; yet we are not members of the euro-zone. We cannot control immigration and the bulk of our law comes, plug and play style, from the EU. We are not allowed to either fine tune or reject any of it.

So if a referendum is held will it be easy for the NO side? That's doubtful, a large percentage of the people who would support the UK leaving the EU could, at the risk of over-simplifying things, be described as politically right of centre and conservative by nature. This tag could also be used, again with much over-simplification, to describe the supporters of Pinochet. The Larrain film poked fun at their approach, and with reason.

Here in the UK the same mind-set would, based upon evidence, get the iconography all wrong. We know that the UK media loves to laugh at the way UKIP clings to the John Bull style imagery. The portly man with a top hat, Union Flag waistcoat, sometimes with a bulldog, but UKIP make this sort of mistake all the time. It perhaps appeals to people over 80 and yes we have an aging population but there are limits to this approach. There was a John Bull tyre company but the image was not used after the mid 1950s. As they let it go perhaps we should do the same?

Footnote -

This film is not on general release but doing the rounds of university arts centres and the like. However, do make the effort to see it. There's a short clip on YouTube under, Pablo Larrain NO. It uses the same image as this post. In a future post we intend to develop the theme of the ideal iconography for a UK NO campaign.