I was going to write a series of articles on the UK referendum, but as both sides belch ludicrous statements and the UK reveals itself to be significantly more xenophobic than I’d ever feared, I can’t stomach writing more than one.
If nothing else, this referendum has split the nation on what it means to be ‘British’. At one extreme are people who seem to think you’re a traitor for accepting the notion of being a part of something bigger than ourselves. At the other, people warn of a breakdown of the entire continent as the result of the UK leaving the EU.
Anyone who follows me on social media knows I am firmly in the Remain camp, despite my distaste at the way Cameron has conducted his campaign. Here’s a grab-bag of thoughts and proto-articles I was inning, which helped me inform my decision.
Anti-German sentiment is becoming commonplace. This seems deep-rooted in the British psyche. Some people in our country apparently will never come to terms with peacetime. This manifests in outright xenophobia, but also a distrust about the Germans ‘taking over’ the EU. In reality, the Germans would probably like nothing more than for the UK to take a much more active role. Instead, we elect MEPs who specifically try to disrupt and harm rather than make things better.
Racism and xenophobia have become cornerstones of this debate, sometimes hidden under the guise of ‘immigration’ and ‘strains on public services’. Mostly, there’s a depressingly English mentality of ‘things would be better without all those FOREIGNS, messing everything up’. It’s repugnant and demonstrably false; moreover, if people want someone to blame for the country’s ills, perhaps they should look first to the government, what it chooses to fund, and who it chooses to tax.
Survival is a word I’ve heard frequently. “Don’t you think the UK can survive outside of the EU?” Of course it can, but that’s a bare minimum. I want my country to thrive. I’ve seen no arguments suggesting cutting ourselves off from the EU will achieve this.
Freedom of movement is something few British people consider, or they think it’s their God-given right, but that it shouldn’t be reciprocated. The UK complains about perceived problems, yet forgets the benefits, from skills gaps being filled through to the basic conveniences of Brits being able to move, study and live in any EEA country, without first having to secure employment. And many do — more Brits live overseas than the citizens of most other countries in or associated with the union.
Right to reside is something that appears to have been glossed over in this campaign. Despite lawyers screaming for months that the Vienna Convention is essentially meaningless when it comes to an individual’s residency rights, there is an assumption that Brits overseas and EEA nationals already in the UK will be able to stay indefinitely. (Boris Johnson has himself said this will be the case, but it’s hard to trust a man whose convictions are so flimsy, given that he was speaking and writing about the benefits of the EU not long before deciding to switch sides.) But what rights will these people have? And how will this be policed? Say someone from Italy rocks up at Gatwick. How will customs and immigration differentiate between someone with the right to reside and someone entering the country? At the very least, we can look forward to enjoying the introduction of a colossally expensive system (in terms of time and money) to administer this.
Facts are now irrelevant in the debate about the EU, and this is a criticism levelled at both sides. Leave drives round in a bus with outright fiction splashed across it, seems to have no understanding of the finite nature of money, and bangs on about Turkey joining the EU; Remain seems to think Brexit would mean the end of pensions and the beginnings of war. Remain comes off slightly better, if only because it has a tendency to source some of its arguments. But it’s deeply worrying that this could be the future for British politics — moving even deeper into Trump-style ‘repeat it enough and people will believe it’ garbage. As long as your surface argument is optimistic, it seems many people won’t dig deeper. Too often, Brexit feels like climate-change denial or anti-vaccination. That’s not a good place to be. (And if you think this hyperbole, The Sun’s front page earlier this week referred to Turkey being an issue that’s really hit home with voters, despite Turkey’s chances of joining the EU any time soon being nil.)
Experts are now irrelevant too, at least when it comes to the Leave. Gove has gleefully noted he’s on the opposite side of experts. Experts, apparently, are all under the command of puppet master David Cameron. So as UK scientists say Brexit will wreck the UK’s standing in the field, Leave says UK scientists don’t understand how science works in the UK. As the head of the NHS and countless staff fret about what Brexit means for the service, Leave says the people within the NHS have no idea about the NHS. And so on. It’s Michael Gove vs The Aliens on the big stage; and given that we already have a government big on opinion and often not interested in evidence, this is a bad and deeply worrying development.
The destruction of the Tories is a leftie argument I’ve seen for Brexit. The idea is the party is torn apart by infighting, resulting in a snap election and PM Corbyn by Christmas. This strikes me as insane. Conservatives will rapidly fall into line, because that’s what they do. And given that UK voters freaked out in 2015 about the prospect of Miliband’s Labour doing a deal with the SNP, I can’t see matters having changed significantly a year later. Corbyn or or more left-leaning Labour might have some kind of chance of an election victory in 2020, but Brexit won’t provide a shortcut.
EU grants and funding for UK cities are themes finally starting to make an appearance on social media. I’m seeing people from Liverpool and Manchester point out that it was EU money that revived their cities. The counter argument is this was money the UK paid into the EU coffers anyway, and so the UK could have funded these things itself. The counter to that is: would it? UK politics remains London-centric, and regeneration of communities elsewhere is not a priority.
Could and will are regularly being conflated. Both sides are using this kind of weasel language, most notably Leave’s suggestions of what it could do with ‘savings’ that come from leaving the EU. It could provide extra funding for the NHS. It could drop VAT on fuel. But the savings aren’t huge in the scheme of things (EU expenditure is, according to most figures, about one per cent), and Leave knows what will be done is little or nothing — hence the language being very careful. If Brexit wins, this will be the excuse later on. (Also, any notion people like Gove, Johnson, IDS and Farage give a hoot about the NHS or social justice is laughable. These people have all been gung-ho about eradicating such things. They are not on the side of people who wish the UK to retain them.)
The establishment is, we’re told, Remain. And this is to some extent true. Captains of industry, economists, and the vast majority of politicians are pro-Remain. But if you don’t think the likes of Boris Johnson are establishment, too, you’re delusional. He’s not a ‘typical bloke down the pub’. He’s a man who referred to a £250,000 income he received from his second salary as a columnist as “chicken feed”. When pressed, he said he was being “frivolous” and often gave to charity. The initial response, however, was telling. (And then you have people like Dyson, championed as being ‘for the UK people’ by plumping for Leave, despite moving manufacturing overseas. Similar figures arguing for Remain, though, are somehow ‘self serving’.)
On the subject of allies, it’s curious how aggressive Leave has been. Quitting the EU will anger the organisation. It remains to be seen to what level, but the response is always ‘we don’t need them’. So then the US President notes the USA wants the UK to remain in the EU, as do the leaders of many other allies. Always the response is we don’t need those countries, or that we won’t be bullied. Sooner or later, we’ll run out of countries to gripe about. (And, indeed, I’ve noted a recent Brexit argument being that the UK ‘doesn’t need anyone’. I’m not sure a North European North Korea ruled by Kim Jong-Johnson is the way forward, but there you go.)
Arrogance, hubris and division are what we’ve ended up with, and that stink will remain whatever the decision. It’s depressing that a country that has long been a hub and a melting pot thinks it’s above the world. Sure, the UK often punches above its weight as a medium-sized country, but it does so through building bridges, not erecting walls. To think we can continue by slamming the door in everyone’s face is astonishing. And that sense of division will continue for years, between those who want a progressive UK integrated into the EU and those who want the UK to go it alone.
I feel the latter group remembers a Britain that never was (a point made by AA Gill). They forget that before EU entry, the UK was struggling, and it was in part the EU that enabled the UK to become the modern power it is today. They forget that once British people flocked to other countries, to the point a TV series was made about the phenomenon.
But it’s clear this view isn’t nearly ubiquitous and, if recent polling is to be believed, may not even be the majority. Like I’ve said, I have no reason to believe the UK won’t survive Brexit, but I do suspect a lot of people will be in for a nasty surprise if that’s the option chosen.
It’s hard to know what shape said surprise will take — be it major repercussions like the UK having to plump for a Norway-style deal, or relatively small niggles, such as the Daily Mail suddenly realising Brits no longer have the right to retire to Spain (which will presumably be blamed on the EU and not the UK’s decision to leave) — but I’ll be amazed if there isn’t a shock or series of shocks in some form.
It’s notable that Leave doesn’t really have any coherent vision of the future, merely hand-waving away concerns and saying everything will be all right because GOD SAVE THE QUEEN and CRICKET and RULE BRITANNIA! Yet even The Telegraph has noted investors are now pulling funds out of the UK at an alarming rate not seen since the banking crisis. The ‘value’ of the UK is rapidly falling on the possibility of Brexit. When Brexit actually happens, who knows how bad things will get?
Of course, by June 24 it’ll be too late to do anything about it. You can’t vote out Brexit in five years’ time.