My readers know where I stand on the EU Referendum, and Britain’s (probable) withdrawal from membership of the European Union. Today, on Father’s Day, and if it’s not too late, I want to appeal to anyone who might be still be persuaded to “Remain” instead of “Leave” – to chose a different history for their children and grandchildren.
There is ample evidence now that the campaign for leaving has been built on a discredited prospectus. All of their ‘headline’ arguments have been shown to be false – and yet is seems the majority of the electorate just isn’t listening. I think, partly, this is down to good old xenophobia, and a lot of jingoistic nostalgia for a time when the “Great” in Great Britain meant something. The trouble is the world isn’t like that any more.
Migrants didn’t cause the global economic collapse of 2008. Migrants didn’t cause “austerity” (which, by the way was a political choice not an economic inevitability). The “Leavers” focus on “taking our country back”, but don’t say from whom we would be taking it, nor even have a clear exposition of who the “we” implied in “our” country is. The leaders of the “Leave” campaign say they want to take back the control of the country from the EU. I suspect many of them, and their supporters, want to take back their country from “foreigners” settled in this country, and especially those with darker skins and odd religions. The “Leavers” talk about Britain being the 5th largest economy in the world, and thus able to stand on its own feet, but in almost the same breath say we haven’t enough to go round. They say we will easily negotiate new trade deals with other partners, but have you ever seen the outcome of a negotiation where one party comes to the table cap in hand? They want us to “wage war on terror” in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya etc, but don’t want to deal with the human consequences (like refugess) it creates. All of this focus on immigration ignores our long history and experience of in-migration adding layers of diversity, competence and, crucially, productivity to our economy.
To me it looks like a lot of working class “Leavers” are feeling let down and disenfranchised by economic and political failure. They are looking for a scapegoat, and they blame the EU. They don’t much care that they voted for successive governments that have perpetrated, and then perpetuated, this chaos. If you look back at ‘vox pop’ newsreels of the 1950s and 60s, of Enoch Powell etc., you’ll hear, almost word for word, the same arguments about pressure on resources, culture, and jobs as we are hearing now. But now, as then, when you peel away all the econo-speak soundbites of 2016, the “leavers” campaign is still undepinned by racism. In those days they openly called a spade a spade: ghastly terms like “nigger / nig nog / wog / paki” were rife. We don’t do that any more, in public anyway. But that hate is still there, sanitised somehow but still there. If we needed positive evidence we need look no further than the heinous murder of MP Jo Cox last week by a white racist activist yelling “Britain First” and calling himself “Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain” when being arrained in court.
I am absolutely NOT saying that all who want to quit the EU are racist, not at all. I’m not even saying that the “Leavers” don’t have good reasons for disatisfaction that we can all identify with. There is no doubt that the EU is damaged and unwieldy. It has significant flaws in its institutions (though none, we tend to forget, so very different from those that afflict our own national institutions). In trying to harmonise 20+ countries with widely varying populations and economies, all starting from different baselines, it has failed to adapt quickly enough. On the other hand it has done more to protect workers rights, human rights and the environment than the UK government alone would have done. The fact is, we are where we are and partly we are culpable for where we are. As individuals many (including me) have become politically ‘lazy’. We’ve sat back and let others do the hard work of being a democracy. Successive EU (MSP) elections in the UK have seen pathetically low turnout. You have to be active, take part: you can’t complain if others take decisions you have let go by default.
Now I want to focus on my final point. This decision is NOT an economic one, it is a political one.
The EU has, without question, been a positive force for stability in post-war and, importantly, post-Soviet Europe. However the rapid expansion of the EU, bringing in countries formerly aligned with, and under the influence of, the former Soviet Union has been a geo-political act. It was strategic, not economic, and aimed at realigning former western COMECON states with a NATO posture that sought (and still seeks) to ringfence the Russian Federation and put “the West” right on their borders. The same with accelerating plans to bring Turkey in to the EU. Over a short period of time that has brought us, through the freedom of movement provisions of EU membership, millions of (mostly) well educated, ambitious, work-orientated young Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians, Slovakians, etc. etc.. At the same time, in Southern Europe, we have been caught out, and overwhelmed, by the wave of economic and war refugees from the Middle-East and sub-Saharan Africa. None of this is the fault of the EU as an institution, or as an ideal, but our ability to influence the changes necessary to respond to, and deal with, it will disappear along with our membership of it. If we seriously think we can use the English Channel as a moat and pull up the drawbridge, so to speak, we are mistaken. Europe will not go away, and we will still be subject to all the pressures of it on our doorstep.
In a very few days we will go to the polls and decide our future history. I hope, perhaps against hope, that people will look beyond their own immediate interests and chose to stay, and fight, for a better EU. The other EU states don’t want us to leave, and with good reason. If we do, and as a consequence give heart to similar (largely right-wing) campaigns in other countries, the whole EU might unravel. Who really benefits from that. Putin’s Russia? Trump’s America? Putin knows his history, Trump doesn’t know his. We seem to have forgotten ours. After Ukraine, what chance Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and so on? Look to the former Yugoslavia if you want to see what a post EU Europe, with individual states looking inwards and settling old religious and political scores, might look like. The EU is not perfect but the alternative, a fractured nationalist Europe, will be far, far, worse.
Please vote “Remain”, but if you vote to “Leave” don’t be disappointed if nothing much happens. The Britain of 24th June will look the same as it did on the 23rd. After the euphoria of a “Leave” victory subsides it will take years for substative change to emerge. Old laws and regulations have to be unpicked and new ones enacted – all fought through our own Parliament and you can imagine what that will be like.
In the world of realpolitik it will be years before all these negotiations bear fruit. Don’t get frustrated. Quite likely there is going to be an election before 2020. Whenever it comes you, yes you, need to make sure that in this, the 5th richest country of the world, you address your concerns about resources, the NHS, Education, Housing etc., at the ballot box. Happy voting!