Let Me Eat Cake

Marie Antoinette never said the thing she is most famous for saying, like many slightly famous people. It doesn’t matter. Someone needed to say it, to symbolise the arrogance and indifference to suffering of a ruling class that was about to be violently removed from power, and she became that symbol. Like God, if she didn’t exist, Robespierre would have invented her.

Boris Johnson, as it happens, did say one of his most famous quotes:

My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it

As whose is not?

Thing is, Boris is on to something here. Once people in Europe were ruled by a remote aristocracy that wished cake upon them when confronted with their grievances. Now, it seems, we are ruled by people who just want cake for themselves.

Most people have missed the significance of Boris’ recently revealed alternative pro-EU column. It is easy to see Boris waffling between the two sides, carefully calculating the political advantage to be gained by joining one side or the other. No doubt that played a role.

The reality is different from pure political calculation. Preaching remain, as we can see from the text of his column, is all about eating vegetables. No one likes it, we just have to do it to stay healthy. Preaching leave is like coming into the kitchen and finding an un-guarded chocolate cake. Sure you may get heart trouble somewhere down the line, but it will be worth it for the sweet, sugary goodness that is there to be enjoyed right now, rather than in some abstract future.

Boris plays the game and, to judge by his current front-bench position, he plays it well. In part that is because it is a game for him. From that perspective, what could be a more obvious choice than to choose cake over vegetables?

Brexit voters, like their pro-Trump counterparts in America, have been fed a steady diet of anti-EU cake over the decades. They have long since stopped worrying about annoyances like expert opinions in favour of truthy ideas that taste good. In favour of cake.

Arguing for the public good has always been a difficult job. There is always some kind of cake out there and someone ready and willing to urge us on to stick our faces in it and consume to our hearts’ content.

Far too much of the progressivism of the past 20–30 years has come in the form of vegetable preaching. Dry, tasteless and for our own good. There is something to be said for addressing people with respect, for expecting them to go for intelligent ideas because they are intelligent and well reasoned. Except you need to make sure that they actually get the benefits that are supposed to come from their sacrifices.

And there need to be benefits. Not getting sick, so to speak, is not enough. Sooner or later, people begin to wonder whether they would not have got sick either way. Addressing large numbers of middle class voters who have seen their prospects dwindle over the decades, even if they remain middle class, and telling them that things will get even worse if they vote Trump or Leave doesn’t give them much to go on.

There is a progressive case to be made for the EU. I have been thinking about it. To my mind, it starts here:

We live in a global capitalist system for the foreseeable future. The performance of the Pound post-referendum shows what happens when any country goes against the wishes of ‘the market’. To get respect and wiggle room, you need scale in this world. When the United States speaks, people listen in part because of its army, but even more because it remains the largest economy in the world. China is now taken seriously because it is the second largest, soon to be the largest, economy.

European values, most of which we share in the UK, are not all in line with the way many other large global capitalist players do things. No one in China or the United States is entitled to 20 days of holiday per year. Maternity leave, where it exists at all, is constricted.

Enforcing those values within a 500M strong block is not only possible, it is the reality of the past decades. The Nissan deal, in which the UK government appears to have granted some kind of assurance of an offset against possible future Brexit related costs in order to keep Nissan sweet, shows the future outside the EU. It is a future of concessions to the demands of companies in exchange for their presence on our shores.

In a world of large, global players, a bloc of 500M is simply in a better position to assert itself than a small nation of 60M. As a leading player in Europe, the UK is in a better position to advance and protect progressive causes than it would be outside. That may not be as glamorous as ‘take back control’, but it feels like the basis of a far better argument than just saying we will be worse off without it.