The EU referendum is making some people rather nervous. Following a tweet by Sandra Howard about the differing opinions of her and her husband, former Conservative leader Michael, the BBC ran a 'survival guide' for families split over the referendum.
At any significant political event, there are always complaints that the debate is too loud, too aggressive – often too male. But in the case of the EU this just isn't true. One criticism to make of both Leave and Remain campaigns is that, on the whole, they've so far failed to inspire any real momentous political support. Nobody seems excited about the prospect of a vote on the EU.
So when Sandra Howard said: "We are a split house on EU, but – wondrously – no fights, we respect the other's view. Let's hope the journos and Westminster do same', I wonder what she meant. She can't have meant that politicians should refrain from battling out their opinions in parliament or that journalists shouldn't be honest about their opinions in the newspapers, could she?
Howard's tweet reveals a real problem with attitudes to political discussion in Britain. The idea that someone might have a fight about their political opinion, and that it might get ugly, is supposedly negative. This is the argument currently put forward by female campaigners on both sides of the EU debate about women's access to politics. Apparently the current political conversation is not only too male, pale and stale, but too aggressive and 'shouty' for women to become involved.
Recent stats released about women's reluctance to announce their view on the EU referendum said exactly this – women are less likely than men to express their political opinion. But the idea that we have a nation of women who are too frightened to express their political opinion is not only false, but completely undermines the nature of political debate. That political discussion should be informed and sensible is a positive demand, but a debate without a bit of oomph will leave nobody inspired.
The shallow nature of the EU debate has been beautifully exampled by the recent freak-out about the tampon tax. Feminist campaigners – that is, a few MPs and a group of middle-class journalists – have long whinged about the fact that tampons are taxed as a luxury. Finally kowtowing under the pressure of social media popularity, David Cameron announced that he had 'secured a deal' with the EU to allow tampons to be zero-taxed.
Our prime minister just had to consult 27 other countries to be allowed to lower the price of sanitary products. This isn't a victory for women, only an example of how the EU stifles nation states with unnecessary bureaucracy.
What does this mean for women? A few pence off tampons, which is handy, but hardly the victory against sexism many are calling it. What does it mean for the EU debate? Our prime minister just had to consult 27 other countries to be allowed to lower the price of sanitary products. This isn't a victory for women, only an example of how the EU stifles nation states with unnecessary bureaucracy. And yet, some hope this will encourage women to get involved in the debate and support the Stay campaign. What next? Tempting women into being interested in the referendum with tax-free pink razors?
Besides the ridiculous hype on social media, Leave and Remain campaigns have been arguing off the back foot: leaving the EU will be a step in the dark and staying in the EU will bring on an influx of immigrants. Both arguments are relying on scare tactics to avoid having a positive, open and passionate debate about democracy and internationalism.
I'm voting out, simply because I think that it is wrong for the European Union to undemocratically decide what rules govern my day to day life with no accountability. I want to be able to decide what happens in my country through public debate and discussion without being restricted by an external bureaucratic institution like the EU. I'm also, like all other women, completely free and able to voice this opinion.
British politics often feels more like bland politics. Any time a debate gets a little heated in Parliament or among the public, someone always cries foul play and shuts down the discussion for fear of offence. But what is really behind the claim that discussion about the EU is too male and aggressive is an attempt to neuter and control public conversation. When voicing strong opinions can get you into serious trouble – even on Twitter – is it surprising that people aren't keen on having shouting matches about their political opinions?
The idea that people need guides on how to help them through a political discussion is not only patronising, it completely misses the point of political debate. Politics is not first and foremost a personal matter – the EU referendum won't affect our feelings, or our relationships, it will affect our national sovereignty and ability to make democratic decisions.
The difference between arguing a strong political point and hurting people's feelings has gotten entangled. Labour MP Stella Creasy has described women who want to vote Leave as 'surrendered wives', comparing women who have a valid political viewpoint to women who were controlled and silenced by their husbands during the fight for women's suffrage. What Creasy and those who think like her are arguing, is that women who want out of the EU are so controlled by "male, stale and pale" opinion that they are unable to think for themselves. This is levelling a personal insult at women who politically disagree.
But the EU referendum is not a gendered issue, it is not about familial relations or how well you'll get on with your spouse after you realise you're politically different. It is a serious moment for the British public to be able to inject some life into our democratic processes and exert our power to make politics reflect the way we want to live our lives. We cannot let this be thwarted by demands that the debate be more controlled, friendly and neutral. It must be had out in full, with all opposing sides and all passionate disagreements. To do otherwise is to suggest that the public – and women in particular – can't handle political life.