“I want to stop something exploitative, divisive and dishonest” — conversation with a Leaver

How a remainer came to understand, and in some ways accept, the leave vote
Why leave voters aren’t racist (for the most part)
Why freedom of movement shouldn’t be part of a Brexit deal

This is a bit of a long read. Make sure you’ve got a cup of tea, or at least are sitting on one of your comfier toilets. It’s important to read it all because the juicier stuff is near the end, but it needs the setup.

My dad is a very intelligent man. It’s safe to say he’s also pretty left-wing. He’s definitely not xenophobic or racist. For the past few years he has railed against the EU and migration. Since I was a firm remainer, I needed to find out why.

So, why?

Partly because he lives in Lincolnshire, a county particularly abused by industry — especially agriculture — importing migrant workers. It is no coincidence that Boston and South Holland had pretty much the highest Leave vote in the country.

Another reason is the relentless neoliberal direction the EU is taking. It’s very hard to fight NHS privatisation at home if the EU is constantly pushing for privatisation. Sure the EU has good points — environmental protections, some workers rights, etc — but the underlying philosophy is very much pro-business, anti-state, pro-complete-unification, to a degree I suspect almost all of us find unpalatable. I used to think the good outweighed the bad. I’m not so sure now.

Below are some extracts from a series of email conversations me and my dad had. They made me feel a bit better about the prospect of Brexit, but obviously only if it’s done right. Paul Mason’s ProgrExit is a pretty good idea of what Doing It Right could look like.

We start with his reply to a comment I made about post-referendum market turmoil (my emails are in italics).

Brexit isn’t looking promising right now.

You mean because a bunch of brain-dead currency-speculators, who believed the “0nly 26% chance of Leave” prediction of the previous day because they’d never been outside London and seen what actual people were feeling, first caused the pound to rise hugely with their dim little gambling and then panicked it down again? Give it a few days whilst these dumbsters settle down. Ah, the reliable mature expertise of business and the finance world…

Now the real work begins. But it’s a straight fight again, not a rigged one on two fronts. Mobs in the street expressing displeasure aren’t ideal, but sometimes they work (cf Poll Tax): how could you even start to express anything when what you’re against was split between London and the Bundesbank, with the Bundesbank half invisible? It was a right-wing dictatorship, a junta in all but name.

The fact that “clever middle-class folk” like you and I are doing very well is not the point. The entire low-wage working base of the country has been screwed-over for years, and they’ve finally got their own back.

Be nice if the ruck of the Labour party leadership noticed.

The problem is the mobs almost entirely think that immigration was the problem. Why would they fight a bunch of Tories who finally liberated them from the EU, even as they get screwed in a more traditional way?

For a lot of the mobs, it was. Import a load of cheap labour from poor countries, then exploit the cheap labour and simultaneously use it to drive down the wages of the indigenous workers[*], thus setting ’em against each other… and it’s all basically built-into EU directives (only in polite language, of course). Fantastic.

[* For those thinking, “but it’s been shown immigration has very little effect on wages”, a) many industries use it as an excuse to keep wages artificially low: just go talk to a care home worker or a bus driver; b) we should consider wages and conditions here: proper exploitation, not just low pay. There are any number of Sports Direct style companies, alongside other exploitative industries such as large-scale agriculture, who rely on a steady flow of vulnerable immigrants to keep wages low and conditions awful.]

You can see from the map how it works. The principal Remain area was London and the banker-belt through the Cotswolds, plus a few pockets (including — just — Newcastle, which had been artificially funded-up as a showcase area to distract attention from the rest of the north-east, a bit like how West Berlin used to be). The rest of the country north of the Thames (plus Cornwall) has been closed down and, oddly, people didn’t like it. I don’t suggest it was a carefully thought-through intelligent result, but they instinctively got the drift.

Democracy is premised on the idea that there’s a range of things to vote for, and you vote for the one you like. If there isn’t a range, it fails (and turnout plummets). Faced with a unified bunch of political parties all sagely telling folk their lives were fine when they knew they weren’t, those folk took their one chance to say what they thought. They knew there was something wrong round the immigration business, even if they didn’t quite know what it was and mixed it up with other, nastier stuff.

For me, the right-wing junta aspect of the EU is more important, but the effects of that are longer term. For the people I’m talking about, immigration was an immediate and important problem affecting jobs, housing and facilities, and it didn’t help that every time they tried to mention it they were automatically accused of racism. That’s what drives people into the arms of fascists; if you consistently won’t listen to what they say, they’ll find someone who will. The rise of the pan-European far right is entirely down to the EU.

We know plenty of EU families from school, many of the best staff where I work are from the EU, I know techie freelancers from the EU who’ve contributed a lot to the local tech community since moving here. People who are genuinely part of local life have suddenly been made to feel really unwelcome, and it *really* doesn’t feel right. It feels nasty.

A problem is that the so-called “debates” that have been going on all refer to something monolithic called “immigrants”, and in the unitary sense intended there’s no such thing; arguments like “immigrants is good” vs “immigrants is bad” just aren’t talking about the same people. What you’re talking about is the comfortable articulate middle-class world, which is a million miles away from 20 blokes forced to sleep in a damp garden shed in between picking cabbages, being charged half their pitiful wage for “rent” and “transport” and being used to undercut guys from Boston or Spalding (who would have worked, but not like this). Similar things apply across our wrecked manufacturing base (aka almost everything north of Cambridge). Everyone in this system is getting screwed except the scumbags running it. And even worse is the system which facilitates and encourages it.

There is a huge and growing disconnection between happy middle-class life in urban centres and this kind of thing down at the dirty end — they’re different planets, different universes. One message I saw, from someone in London about the petition for London to become a separate state, says “Why should I bother about what people in Sunderland think? I feel I have more in common with Paris or Berlin than Sunderland!” Leaving aside that this person has obviously never been to the wastelands of the Paris banlieue, that says it all, really. The referendum was swung by a huge slab of population who are being taken for granted and ignored in precisely this “you don’t count” manner.

These folk feel (correctly) that nobody is representing them. And as I said before, then they start to pin it on something called “immigrants”; very few of ’em are in a position to think out what’s actually going on, who’s responsible for doing what to them and where any blame might lie. When you add this to austerity-slashed services stretched to breaking and near collapse even before the new arrivals, they tend to blame the new arrivals rather than the system driving them.

You and I were brought up to be able to go down the well to where your intuitions are, and come back with a usably coherent description. Lots of people don’t do that; they have the intuitions but can’t articulate them, so they hang the feel of it on anything they can find, eg “foreigners”. If you demonstrate to them that what they’re saying is wrong, they just look uncomfortable and shift ground, because it was never about that in the first place. Just because they can’t articulate, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem or that they should be ignored; they’re humans with real, immediate problems. Yes, a very few will be impossible neurotic bigots at a deep psychological level, but the majority are simply trying to say something and can’t manage it. The happy middle-class urban world tends to mock this or be sanctimonious about it in a PC way (“racists!”); I find this cruel and disgusting.

Remember, we don’t have a “working class” any more; it’s been split up and invisible-ised, in your lifetime. Using the fundamental British class snobbery that nobody wishes to think of themself as “working class”, the brighter end was dressed-up in middle-class fancy dress (home ownership, university) and saddled with huge debts (mortgages, tuition fees). The hopeless end was left as a festering invisible underclass. The remainder (majority) of the decent but minimally-skilled thus lost the articulate support of their now middle-class colleagues, along with their identity — this was when Thatcher was deliberately smashing up the country’s industrial base so there were no longer obviously identifiable things like “miners” or “steelworkers” but just a fragmented mess that could be exploited, along with terminally demonised unions. The outcome is zero-hours contracts etc without any serious mechanism for fighting back, and a despairing sense of being unrepresented at any level.

The “nobody is representing me” feel I think is a characteristic of the Age of Management I’ve been banging on about, but has come to a head now. Look at the row in Labour for a perfect example: do any of these silly sods who are attacking Corbyn take even a moment to think “Er…. our electoral base is completely at odds with us, so how about we find out what they think?”; instead they’re just going “Oh, silly proles, they don’t understand what’s good for them, it must be that we haven’t told them hard enough” (aka “we haven’t got our message across”). No, chum, you’re supposed to be listening to ’em, not lecturing ’em. Even I am sick of this patronising we-know-what’s-best-for-you crap to the point where I no longer know who I could vote for and don’t feel anyone is representing me; but I’m comfortably off and not immediately threatened, whereas these folk feel extremely threatened, with justification.

And the EU as we have it is the epicentre and exemplar of this stuff, of “never mind what you think, it’s all going to be this way”. Look what they did to Greece last year. Look at the arrogantly stupid EU reactions to Brexit (same approach as the Corbyn attackers; nothing being learned, nothing being heard).

All the EU directives (which are obligatory to member states) all point in one direction:- privatisation (“opening up public infrastructure to competition”, ie rendering cross-subsidy — and hence the concept of a “service” — impossible), reduction of union power, free movement of workers in a divide-and-rule way that facilitates undercutting etc etc, all designed to benefit business. It all hangs together, and chimes perfectly with the reduction of participatory democracy exemplified in the EU structure.

Had the EU said way back at the beginning “we’re proposing to knock all your countries together and make one big one” (which was the project from the start and is the only way the Euro can possibly work), nobody would have considered it for a moment; so instead, it’s been smuggled in, bit by bit, year by year, all based on the principle “we know what’s best for you”. As I said the other week, I think that’s what’s behind the perpetual complaint “we don’t have enough information”, which sounds uncannily like what I remember in 1975; the information’s easy to find if you look, but they’re picking up (correctly) on a sense that something’s going on which they aren’t being told about. “Not feeling represented” is one expression of this.

The referendum result is about a class divide as much as anything. Did you see that woman in (I think) Hartlepool, weeping quietly and saying “we got our country back! we got our country back!” over and over? Is it proposed that these people are just stupid and should be dropped down a hole? Of course, we only have the possibility of “getting our country back”, we haven’t got it yet; but I’m inclined to agree with her formulation. I prefer it to accepting Schauble (German finance minister) and his current proposal for an unelected invisible Special Person with power to veto the budget of any government in the EU if the ECB (controlled by the Bundesbank) doesn’t approve of it; that counts as ”losing your country” for all practical purposes.

And I don’t think “wanting your country back” is about nostalgia. It’s possible that the concept of the nation state may need to turn into something else, but not like this (just the same as Communism might have been a good idea, but not like that).

I can’t help thinking there should have been a way of stopping the rampant exploitation…

Not possible given the EU structure, I fear; and the structure embodies the fundamental (deeply right-wing) aims. It’s the same problem as stopping currency speculators and suchlike parasites: it’s impossible to distinguish between legitimate currency purchases and speculative ones (now if only there was a law stipulating that after purchasing currency, you couldn’t resell it within a month….).

…while still letting people study/work/live where they felt they could do their best.

I studied in Utrecht before we were even in the Common Market; I’ve worked in Europe all my life; My partner (from a non-EU country) has lived and worked here since the late 60s. There was never a problem; the only thing that changed with the EU was that driving through the frontiers of Belgium and Holland became faster because the barrier poles were left up. People speak as if travel, work and study never happened before the EU. I don’t understand.

I’ll say again: none of it’s got anything to do with hating or demeaning people. I ain’t shooting at the folk you mentioned at the start, and I don’t take the sensible Leave people to be either, despite the fact that there are also some pretty unsavoury characters involved. It’s the structure that I’m aiming at; I want to stop something exploitative, divisive and dishonest. The EU is not Europe, it’s an ideology imposed on Europe, for very dubious ends.

It all has been, and is, pretty vile. There are some extremely unpleasant responses going on right now from the nice middle-class end of things.

And yes, “Out” still may not work, but it’s better than just sitting there meekly.

And so ends our conversation. I’ve posted the above because I keep seeing people talking about a snap general election, and saying a party standing on a firm “Remain” platform could win. I’m fairly sure the recent history of voters switching to UKIP shows that’s nonsense. In addition, even if somehow a Remain party won, do we really want to so ostentatiously disenfranchise the poorer half of the country? Do we want to drive them more and more to UKIP and even more unsavoury parties? Because that sounds like a terrible idea to me. It might, actually, be time to pay some attention to the people who voted leave and their reasons for it.