The EU referendum moved from the fringe to the mainstream of UK politics in the space of a generation. Twenty years ago, a single-issue party, the imaginatively named Referendum Party, sponsored by a nasty piece of work called Sir James Goldsmith, huffed and puffed but could not bring the political establishment’s house down. The party lasted three years, before disbanding in 1997, after a series of desultory electoral tallies.
Now, in four days time, Britain might vote to leave the European Union. Sir James is not so much turning in his grave but perhaps on the verge of rising from it. This is an extraordinary development. How did this come to pass?
The answer is quite straightforward. First of all, Cameron put the issue to a vote. This was something that he did not have to do. He called it because he did not anticipate the 2015 General Election would leave him with a comfortable majority, securing his leadership against the pretender to his throne, Boris Johnson. Had he done so, he would never have promised it.
But, more importantly, his decision has provided a lightening rod for the conflation of two issues – sovereignty and immigration. The Tory Eurosceptic right hated the EU but the public, thought suspicious and sceptical of of it, did not share the Eurosceptics’ fanaticism. What has changed is the link between immigration and the EU. Plenty of people who do not have an issue with the EU do have an issue with immigration. This, above all else, has moved the issue from the lunatic fringe on the right to the mainstream.
I am going to vote to remain because I do not believe the demagogic promises of people like Farage, Gove and Johnson. I call their promises demagogic for three reasons. First, they are promising that Brexit will only produce winners and no losers. All gain, and no pain. Second, disavowals by Gove and Johnson to the contrary, the Leave campaign is relies much heavily much on scapegoating outsiders for our problems, leading to the false promise that turning our backs on foreigners will solve our problems. Third, and to cap it alll, there is the vain hope that there will be no need for politics come Brexit, like dealing with people you don’t like, having to compromise and trade-off, settle for second-best, manage competing demands and ration scarce resources. Those are demagogic promises. It’s what Utopia might look like or maybe Planet Earth after the Second Coming but it’s not what the UK will look look after 23 June 2016, whichever way it votes. Let’s add a bit more detail.
First, the Leave campaign promises no losers, only winners, if we Leave. The Remain campaign is warning that there will be plenty of losers it we vote to Leave. The Leave campaign denies this.
We have no way of knowing how plausible the various claims made about the impact on our living standards leaving the EU will have. They cannot be tested in a laboratory beforehand or with controlled experiments. We are going to be forced to make a decision against the background of ignorance. We don’t know what costs or what benefits leaving will bring.
One thing is for sure, and that both sides can agree on, is that our political and economic relations with the EU are hardly marginal or peripheral. Voting Leave will surely disrupt these relationships – how could they not? From that, it stands to reason that there will be costs if we leave. In the long term, perhaps we will all be better off out. Who knows? But, in the meantime, there will be losers and some are going to have to pay. It is a lie to deny otherwise.
But deny this truth is indeed what the Leave campaign has done. One example will suffice. I smelled a rat when Leave claimed that they would match EU subsidies to deprived English regions like Cornwall, payouts the EU will surely cease if we vote to Leave. In making such a promise, they conceded, in a back-handed way, that there are benefits to EU membership and that leaving will cost Cornwall and other deprived English regions. They try to assuage this fear by promising they will match the spend. Since the Leave Camp’s leaders have all defended austerity and attacked public spending, then why should such promises be believed?
Still, having made such promises, they will be bound to keep them. After all, there must be no losers. But, can they assure us that they can keep such promises? How do we know if the economy will allow us to replace lost EU subsidies?
In the last analysis, Gove, Johnson and Farage, white, upper-class males of independent means, are staking their political careers but, if they whole thing goes belly up, they will not be the ones who pay for their principles by joining a dole queue. But we might. They are gambling but we are the ones being asked to put the chips on the table. In short, there will no doubt be costs and benefits to leaving but none of us have any idea of whether we will be the ones to enjoy the benefits, or pay the costs.
Now for the second issue, the scapegoating of outsiders. Now, I don’t think those voting to Leave are by definition racist. Nor is criticism of immigration or even of immigrants racist, by definition. And few in the Remain camp argue that we should do away with border controls. Further, immigration is a real concern of voters and democratically elected representatives must at least listen to these concerns, even if they don’t have to put the matter to a referendum – which, for all intents and purposes, this referendum has become, a vote on immigration.
To my mind, I accept the analysis of the majority of economists that immigrants contribute more to the country than they take out. That said, there is no doubt that not everyone experiences it that way and that some have lost out, especially those on low pay. Immigration has produced winners and losers. To deny this to fall into the same dishonesty of the Leave camp – there can only be winners and no losers.
On top of that, there is the fact of cultural difference and conflict. These conflicts are not, contrary to the claims of some pro-immigration campaigners, conjured out of nowhere by the tabloid press.
That said, there is no doubt that such antagonisms that do exist are being harnessed for political ends. There can be no better example of that than Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster. The fears this poster is meant to play on are real enough. But it is the trademark of an ethnic demagogue to play these up these fears.
This style of political ‘argument’ is akin to the politics of ethnic mobilisation in sub-Saharan Africa, fanning fears of the other, inciting ones own group’s worst instincts rather than the better angels of their nature. In this case, the people Farage seeks to mobilise are white. This has all the poison brew of ethnic politics: a sense of group victimhood combined with entitlement at the expense of other groups, self-righteous intolerance of other groups, refusing to acknowledge any contribution outsiders make, feeding chauvinism and bigotry.
Both Gove and Johnson have played down this dimension of the Leave campaign and talk more about exalted notions such as sovereignty. This idea is not a left wing or a right wing idea. It is an idea about the location of authority. It deserves respect. In spite of both men’s learned references to political theory and in spite of the the higher intellectual powers that Gove in particular brings into the argument, the Leave camp is not being led by Gove’s head but by Farage’s dark heart.
Apart from Gove, I noted that no other prominent leader of the Leave camp denounced Farage and his poster. That is what I would have expected them to do, if they felt that the issue was more than about immigrants and race baiting. They said nothing not because they are Nazis or racist but because if they did, they would have alienated substantial numbers of their own core vote. These voters are the people who want ‘their country back’ and not in the sense of just taking back parliamentary sovereignty but by keeping foreigners out, and getting rid of the ones already here.
So, in short, I acknowledge that immigration is a serious public concern. It is wrong to dismiss this out of hand, as too many pro-immigration campaigners do. On the other hand, it is wrong to scapegoat people who, even they have come here for a better life rather than some political reason, deserve to be treated as individuals on their own merits, neither idolised nor demonised. Whether someone was born here or they moved here, we do not discriminate on the basis that membership of a group sanctifies that person. That means migrants respecting our laws. But it also means that we give respect where it is due, impartially. Therefore, a hard-working migrant, cleaning toilets and paying taxes, has a better claim to our respect than drunken, loutish members of our indigenous population getting into a drunken brawl on a Friday night.
That brings me to the third and final consideration: the denial of the need for politics. I have touched on this already. If we vote Leave, some will win and others will lose. The Leave campaign denies this but for no good reason. Politics needs to protect the interests of the losers as much as the winners. As I said, perhaps, in the long run, all will be well. Even if that is so, some will suffer losses. To pretend otherwise is a lie.
We have also seen this in relation to the scapegoating of foreigners, especially the insinuation that all conflicts over resources and entitlements in this country are down to foreigners claiming an unfair share. Not only is this wrong in fact, as foreigners also create wealth as much as they take it, it assumes that such conflicts would cease, if only the indigenous were left on these islands.
Aside from that, the nation will be divided into two camps at loggerheads with each other, with opposing understandings of what it means to be British and how we should position ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. We will have to live together, whatever happens, and we will need politics in order to do that.
Leave seems to think that such divisions will fade in the course of time, tranquillised by the new era of abundance that will dawn with our departure.
No such thing will happen. Divisions are endemic to any society and they would persist even if we threw all the foreigners out. Whatever the result, I doubt it will be decisive enough to settle the argument once and for all. The argument will carry on and disagreement will have to be contained because we don’t want to see more incidents like Jo Cox’s murder. There will also be plenty of foreigners still living among us, and contributing to this country. They too will demand a say and their demands will need to be heard, whether in or out of the EU. We will need to use politics to deal with that, too. And that’s before we count Scotland, which may well vote to Leave the UK. Even if they don’t, then a Leave vote will certainly alienate Scots from the Union still further and deepen existing conundrums over the future of the UK as a united entity.
Then there is the rest of Europe. Perhaps we can negotiate various deals with European countries that can keep the best of both worlds. Good luck to those negotiators, I say. Since we will have repudiated a bloc of 27 other countries, we are going to have to go it alone, without allies. We can’t count on the United States, given its pro-EU stance. Even if Trump gets in, his isolationism is not necessarily friendly to our interests. Who does that leave us with? Putin? The Chinese?
But above all else, the Leave camp will split. They will quarrel over the allocation of resources, over the status of the hundreds and thousands of foreigners already in the country, over which interest groups to appease, over which promises to keep and which to break, over the struggle to manage the substantial legislative programme that leaving the EU will involve in Parliament, where pro-Remain MPS will no doubt carry on guerilla warfare.
None of this is to say that the Remain camp has conducted its campaign without resorting to its own share of trickery, dodgy claims and scaremongering. But there is one crucial difference and this has clinched it for me. Remain is not claiming that the EU is perfect. It does not deny that problems will persist. Leave can find nothing good to say about the EU and posits an alternative but they cannot spell out what it would look like, expect that it would be rid of all our problems. No, I just don’t believe that.
Leave’s aspirations are messianic, akin the style of thinking one finds in splinter revolutionary groups who think, come the revolution, all divisions and conflicts will vanish. This is Middle England’s own version of the 20th Century’s failed revolutionary projects. Leave the EU, all will be well. This not only lacks credibility. It lacks common sense. I thought we British were well-endowed with this quality. It would seem not.