WHO could have imagined, in a rational debate about the future of this country in the 21st century, that the spectre of Hitler would be raised?
Not only that, but who would have guessed that there would be a racial slur against the President of the United States, an accusation of being an apologist for Vladimir Putin, or the Prime Minister condemned as “demented”?
Or that there would be a semi-hysterical warning that Europe might be sleepwalking into World War Three, or voters risking giving succour to the lunatics of so-called Islamic State?
But this is what the debate over whether Britain should leave or remain in the EU has descended to – an ugly slanging match of political untruths, smears and nonsensical scaremongering.
It is almost as if both Leave and Remain camps have looked across the Atlantic and found a role model in the boorish and loud-mouthed Donald Trump whose blustering stream of falsehoods has, worryingly, given him a shot at becoming the world’s most powerful man.
Such is the level of crassness to which this debate about Britain’s future has sunk, and the victims of it are voters.
With a little over a month to go to the referendum on June 23, the nation cries out for facts, evidence and reason on which to base its decision to vote in or out. Instead, we are getting abuse, alarmist rubbish and the venomous scoring of points off political rivals – principally within the Tories – more concerned with punching each other than talking to the country.
Thoughtful voices are drowned out by shrillness. The Governor of the Bank of England offers his opinion that leaving the EU could spark a recession, and the immediate reaction of the out camp is to call for Mark Carney’s head, not to debate with him. President Obama offers his viewpoint, and is accused of antipathy towards Britain because of our colonial past.
And then what amounts to pressing the nuclear button in any discussion of Europe – introducing Hitler into the debate by comparing the EU’s aims to his evil subjugation of the continent.
We should be both angry and alarmed at the way both sides in the EU campaign are conducting themselves, for they are sowing seeds of division that risk poisoning the years ahead, whichever way the vote goes.
It has become so bad that influential figures have expressed concern. Take the chief executive of EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, Terry Scuoler, who last month set out a well-reasoned case for staying in the EU.
Whether one agrees with him or not, the organisation’s views have a weight that deserves careful consideration. They are exactly the sort of sober projections based on the practicalities of doing business and keeping people in work that voters need in order to make up their minds.
Yet Mr Scuoler did not get as much attention as he deserved, because of the noise and fury of the political classes attempting to trip each other up.
He did, though, in passing, hit the nail squarely on the head by observing: “It is a fevered and unpleasant and at times quite farcical debate which I fear can only get worse as we approach the 23rd June.”
He was right. It has got worse since he spoke, stooping to coarseness and nastiness.
The chief culprit is the star of the Brexit camp, Boris Johnson.
He is a triumph of image over substance, and the man who has stoked abuse, calling the Prime Minister “demented”, insulting President Obama, and yes, raising Hitler.
The real Johnson appears to be peeping out from behind the carefully cultivated image of affable, game-for-a-laugh Boris, the political teddy bear whose shambling awkwardness reveals hidden depths and a penchant for dropping into Latin.
And what emerges is a vicious, egotistical, win-at-all-costs thug, happy to punch low to floor an opponent, which prompted Lord Heseltine’s stinging rebuke this week that he is stooping to “preposterous, obscene political remarks” that make him unfit to be a future Conservative leader.
But the Remain campaign should also take the Tory grandee’s words as a shot across the bows about their culpability for the tone of the debate.
It was unwise and ill-judged – as well as nonsensical – of David Cameron to suggest that a break-up of the EU could set Europe on the road to war.
There is still time for both sides to redeem themselves and turn these few remaining weeks of the campaign into the debate that the country deserves.
They should do so without delay, coming to a tacit agreement that the insults and scaremongering must stop, and shrillness is replaced by reason and whatever genuine evidence is available to allow voters to choose which path their country should take.
The debate started well, with a persuasive argument for leaving from Justice Secretary Michael Gove that displayed due respect for the intelligence of the electorate and proper courtesy to the opposing camp. It can, and should, return to that level of civility if only the two sides display the will.
And there is good reason for them to do so. Hysterical claims and insults do not fire up voters, but leave them confused and feeling helpless, not knowing what to do for the best.
There are no simple answers in this debate, as voters weigh their concerns about immigration and the massive cost of EU membership against the possibly damaging economic consequences of going it alone.
Opinion polls showing the Remain and Leave camps neck and neck speak of an electorate divided, and behind the samples taken of those whose minds are already made up surely lies a substantial silent majority agonising about what their vote on June 23 might mean for the future of themselves, their children and the country.
They are the people being neglected as insults fly, and rival camps calculate what the inevitable blood-letting within the Conservative Party that follows the vote will mean for their personal ambitions and political ideologies.
It is high time that such narrow political machinations are put on hold and the focus switched back to the much bigger, and infinitely more important, picture – the concerns of voters.