The nadir of British politics, why I’m voting Remain, and why we’re not hearing Leave’s one reasonable argument
A few months ago, if you’d asked people in this country what they thought about the EU, most of them would probably have shrugged and said, “I dunno. It’s all right,” or, “I dunno. Bit of a nuisance, isn’t it?” and in that big blur of non-committal vagueness most of us could find some common ground, some sense of togetherness despite our minor differences of opinion. “If you were asked to join the EU today, would you?” the leaflets from Leave asked. “If there hadn’t been a referendum, would you care enough to be demanding we leave?” should have been the Remain rejoinder, because most of us weren’t really that fussed before all this started.
The referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU has been an unremittingly grim campaign. It’s a campaign in which misinformation, ignorance and appealing to knee-jerk impulses of the electorate, slowly but surely winnowing away at that common ground, polarising otherwise rational people until the majority of us are either unpatriotic elitists who want to burn the flag and swear allegiance to Brussels while foreigners swarm the gates of Buckingham Palace, or else frothing racists who want to drive anyone not born here (and even some of those who were) into the sea and commit the country to isolation and economic ruin in the name of national purity.
Depending, of course, in which camp you fall.
Neither side of the campaign has done itself any favours in this regard. By getting caught up in arguing details, talk of European war, or promoting the views of “smart people” like economists (which is sensible on the face of it, but so poorly handled), Remain has done its best to live up to the image of an elite talking down to the little people. By endlessly building nonsensical fears of a Turkish flood, money-grubbing Eurocrats and waves of refugees we’re “forced” to allow in under the “take our country back” slogan (implying, as it does, that it’s forcefully occupied by outsiders), culminating in yesterday’s staggering Nazi-style poster reveal, Leave has galloped hard up Xenophobia Alley in the search for votes.
There seems to be no room for a reasoned, sensible, moderate view in either camp. Particularly, I think, in Leave, which has played on negativity far more than Remain (perhaps only because their campaign has had a more consistent message, but still), and whose whole outlook has been based on “us” versus “them”. And if you’re not one of “us”, you must be one of “them”.
So many of such arguments as have been made are garbage, dangerously so, and so many people seem unwilling to accept the contradictions and mistakes in what they’re saying, or that they’re wilfully misinformed about the institution they’re arguing about, that there’s simply no point trying to hold an actual rational discussion on them. (I won’t do so now — this is already long enough as it is — but I’ve posted some of them here.)
This is a great shame. Partly because it shows how far politics has fallen, how shamelessly those who claim to represent us, and those in the media who claim to keep us “informed”, want to go straight for the lizard brain and ignore outdated nonsense like facts, policy, or reason. Partly because I think it’s unquestionably dangerous to campaign on a basis of hate and fear of one side and the glory and superiority of another; that’s a dark road to travel and one I rather wish we’d have learned to avoid by now. And partly because there’s one — and only one — Leave argument I’ve heard that makes sense, insomuch as it’s a question of judgement, an opinion not outwardly based on misapprehension or prejudice, or based on an overwhelming outnumbered set of economical assessments.
I’m a Remain voter. I think the EU has issues, particularly in terms of the visibility and understanding of what it does and why, and in the way that, at times, individual members’ national interests are overly-capable of shaping policy of the bloc as a whole. But I also appreciate its ethos and its effects.
We’re a net contributor as a country, but that’s because, as part of its original, stated aims of normalising economic standards between its members and avoiding the crippling inequalities that led to the rise of fascism between the wars, investment flows from the richer north and west to the poorer south and east, to lift living standards in those countries (and consequently, if that’s your fear, to remove the economic pressures causing international tension and worker migration). I like this. I’m happy with it.
Even when it was the ‘EEC’ and its precursors, all the way back to the Treaty of Rome in the 50s, it’s also aimed to provide a common market for goods, services and labour. That means minimum common standards, minimum common rules governing those things, and minimum common rights. Often, those commonalities have been improvements — from the point of view of the consumer and the worker, at least — from prior national equivalents. We have statutory paternity leave, greater maternity leave, maximum working hours, better rights to paid breaks during work, more and clearer information about what we’re buying, what it’s made from and where it’s come from (particularly when it comes to food), and confidence that just because something’s come from another country it doesn’t mean it’s any less reliable or safe.
For businesses it’s meant a more level playing field between previously competing nations (in theory, if not always entirely in practice) because one nation can’t undercut another by, say, offering looser environmental standards or a more exploitative labour market. It’s removed tariffs and barriers within the supply chain. This has come at an increase in red tape, but much of this standardisation has involved overwriting existing requirements and the extra burden, occasional missteps like VATMOSS aside, isn’t necessarily as high as often claimed.
On a social level, free movement has allowed millions of people to have a greater, closer understanding and experience of other cultures, of other countries that less than a century ago were regarded as strange, alien places to be feared and distrusted. It has unquestionably opened its members up to each other’s influences, their ways of life, to thinking of each other as neighbours rather than rivals.
I like all these things.
Given the statements made during this campaign and before, I also don’t trust our national politicians to willingly continue with many of them. That’s a projection, though, and politics changes. The key, then, is: I like all these things. I’m happy with them. I’d rather keep them, thanks.
I’m also quite happy for the UK to keep taking in refugees, which has nothing to do with being in the EU or not. I’ve seen images from the war in Syria, and I can only imagine how awful it is to be caught up in such a thing, how difficult too it is to leave your home, knowing you’ll never go back, and set off into the unknown, children in tow. I genuinely can’t see how anyone can claim Britain is prosperous enough to deal with the big nations on its own, but couldn’t or shouldn’t be able to help those looking to rebuild their lives from nothing. That’s certainly not the country I grew up in, or the country that so many died defending the last time war reached our own shores.
But, as I said, there’s one argument I’ve heard that perhaps mirrors my own, at least in the way it’s arrived at.
“The EU is growing more and more into a federal state. I’m happy to be a part of a trading bloc, but I don’t want to be a part of a single European government; that’s a step too far.”
That’s a reasonable opinion on the face of it. It’s not one grounded by default in ignorance or prejudice. What I’ve not heard, though, what would’ve been nice to hear over the course of this campaign rather than drum-banging nationalism, is why. Leaving aside whether it would ever happen, because that’s entirely open to question, why do you think a European federal state would be worse than the current situation? What is it about this idea that you don’t like?
“Because we’re our own nation” isn’t an argument. That’s a question of tradition, and tradition by itself is no reason to do anything. If it was, we’d still have slavery, women would be treated as property, and child labour would not only be acceptable but expected.
“We didn’t vote for it 40 years ago” isn’t an argument. A Leave vote now won’t give you back those 40 years, and the results of having to rip up everything that’s been put together over those 40 years will be very different to the situation we’d be in if we’d never joined up in the first place. A revenge ‘no’ now, without anything else driving it, is just pointless spite, and it’s perhaps worth noting that those who are going to face the consequences of such a vote for the longest, those younger than 35 or so, are overwhelmingly in favour of Remain just as those who aren’t going to face them, and certainly not in the same way, those over 60 or so, are in favour of Leave.
“The EU is run by unelected bureaucrats” isn’t an argument. The President of the European Commission, the body that proposes laws & regulations to be voted on by the European Parliament, is elected in an open vote by all MEPs (as opposed to, say, Boris challenging for the leadership and PM-hood here in the event of a Leave vote; he’d be elected purely by the Tory party). Their appointed commissioners are subject to a vote of approval by MEPs. We elect MEPs directly. The European Council(s) is/are made up of the elected leaders and ministers of member states. Everyone is elected by someone in the EU. There’s no sane yardstick by which the EU is “undemocratic” or “unelected” in the way it’s structured, certainly not when compared to what we happily accept in the UK.
But “a federal European government would never be able to accurately represent the individual needs of all its members; we’re too different” is an argument. “We’ve already moved to decentralise some British government functions to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the UK so it makes no sense to do the opposite in Europe” is an argument. “The current European system is too unwieldy and too opaque to support closer government ties” is an argument.
I just haven’t heard them. They’ve been drowned out in garbage. And sure, there are counters to all of those — we can change the system to ensure clearer representation, we can veto (and we really can; important stuff normally requires unanimity in the European Council) anything that would mean an unacceptable degree of centralisation — but again, we don’t get to hear them. We don’t get a debate.
We get ineffective waffle from one side and flag-waving nationalism from the other.
We get “Take Our Country Back”. We get “Take Back Control”.
Let’s unpack that. If we vote Leave, I think it’s widely known Johnson will challenge for the Tory leadership and will likely win. This will give us a prime minister than no one, other than about 20,000 people in Uxbridge, voted for, representing a party that a vast majority voted against in the last election, passing policy in a system which requires no vote in Parliament so long as no laws or national budget allotments are changed, in which the cabinet producing those policies is not subject to parliamentary approval or vote in the first place, and in which one entire house — the Lords — is completely unelected and over which we have no influence at all.
Tell me, what control do we get exactly? And how is that less than we have by working in Europe? What extra representation do we have in an isolated system with so much that’s unrepresentative by default?
No, it’s not us that will get control if we leave the EU. It’s those fronting Leave. Not only directly — Cameron will go, probably taking Osborne with him, and the PM’s job will fall to Johnson, with cabinet posts for most of the others — but also indirectly; by allowing their agenda and the fears they’ve stoked to become respectable political considerations, what they stand for will shape the UK between now and the election in 2020.
And what a bunch they are.
Michael Gove is, and always has been as a cabinet member, incompetent. He’s a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a man whose policies are so hopelessly misguided and blind to reality that you can only suppose he must be very good friends with Cameron to have kept in the job. Amongst other things, he’s the principal architect of the Victorian approach to education currently making a mess of hundreds of thousands of children, including mine. He’s the man who was tasked with putting an end to the Human Rights Act, an act whose only content is a set of very reasonable protections from the abuse of state power for its own ends.
If you have two choices of action, A and B, and Gove says that A is the right choice, I’ve always thought that not only should you do B, you should stride to do it, head held aloft, marching into Option B with the kind of utter conviction normally only available to the fanatically religious, as though God himself had emerged from the clouds and told you, voice booming across the firmament, “YOU! YOU MUST TAKE OPTION B!”
Johnson is a boorish toff with a tenuous grasp on the realities of life for ordinary people and a very, very keen sense of his own political ambitions. A man with a history of bluster, bollocks and blindness arising probably not from any great malice on his part but a complete lack of anyone above him telling him he’s wrong — not since his forced apology to Liverpool while at the Spectator, and his sacking by Michael Howard for lying about one of his various extramarital affairs, anyway — and a complete inability to recognise that his experience is not the same as other people’s, or that such an experience is as worthy as his own. He doesn’t genuinely believe — I suspect — most of what he’s saying in this campaign (he was even paid, years ago, to front a video promoting Turkey’s application to the EU). He doesn’t actually care about your opinions, so long as he gets your votes. He just sees a way to become PM.
Farage is Oswald Mosley without the charisma, a man whose chummy, plummy facade crumbles the moment anyone calls him on his nonsense, a cardboard everyman with a pint glass in one hand and the other grasping for every scrap of attention and influence he can get, whatever he has to do to get it, even down to yesterday’s poster debacle. A braying sphincter who’s somehow managed to convince actual regular human beings that he’s one of us. His party have been a joke as MEPs (protecting Britain’s interests by routinely failing to bother showing up), a haven for casual racism and half-baked misogyny alike through members like Godfrey Bloom, and voting bloc friend to some of the worst the European political far-right has to offer.
Iain Duncan Smith has long shown himself to be a hollow shell devoid of compassion or understanding for the people whose lives he overshadowed as head of the DWP. He’s a man for whom “empathy” is merely a high-scoring word in Scrabble and certainly nothing to be found in the howling void where he once may have had a soul. A man likely to insist on ATOS assessment and threat of sanctions before he’d even allow the peasantry to eat cake.
All four of them, incidentally, have backed abolishing the NHS or free treatment for all; that talk of “a new hospital every week” on Leave leaflets is staggeringly disingenuous by that standard alone.
Behind them, Murdoch, Desmond, Dacre, the Barclay brothers, vastly wealthy tax exiles who’ve been singularly unable to get their hooks into European politicians in the way they have British ones, media barons whose empires have often been built on fostering mistrust and xenophobia and fear.
These are the people whose mast you’re nailing your colours to if you vote Leave. Regardless of whether you like them or not, you have to be willing to accept that their empowerment is one of the consequences of that vote.
Sure, on the other side you’ve got Cameron — a man with all the trustworthiness of a loan shark and the human warmth of a slab of raw chicken, a man whose own offer of a referendum to prevent Eurosceptic Tories defecting to UKIP before the last election represents such a colossal error of judgement that he probably shouldn’t be in charge of a village whist club let alone a country, Osborne — who seems to have hatched from the same reptile house that gave us Peter Mandelson, and Corbyn — who plainly doesn’t believe in his own campaign and is merely going along with it to save himself from being torn apart by his own overwhelmingly pro-EU MPs.
Hardly a group to inspire confidence.
But for once they’re not on the side that’s done most of the outright lying. They’ve run a terrible campaign, but it’s had far less of the negativity of the other side. They’ve not, for once, been relying on people’s basest prejudices and hatreds to carry them to victory in a vote for which the only personal consequences faced by those at the pinnacle are who gets the top seat and the fat pension while the rest of us pick up the pieces.
I have two children. I don’t want them to grow up in a country where stirring up hatred and fear of other regular, ordinary people is an accepted mainstay of political campaigning. Where he who lies loudest and longest wins the race. Where wilful ignorance is considered a virtue. And this would be the same regardless of whether or not we were members of the EU.
I also don’t want them to grow up in a country where the only stop and balance on those who chase power for their own ends is the single, and for much of the country where majority opinion is deeply ingrained, meaningless election we’re allowed every five years. In a small, but crucial, way, European membership provides this in a manner that none of the alternatives will.
For this, and for all the good it’s done even when the ideals aren’t matched in practice, I’ll be voting Remain.