Some Thoughts on the EU Referendum
And on why I’m voting Remain
Tomorrow, I will vote for Britain to remain in the European Union. This is not meant to sound like some big declaration, I’m not the kind of writer who usually lays out my stall in this way and I know that my opinion is worth no more or less than the next person. But having written a few articles relating to the topic, I wanted to set down a few thoughts I’ve had in the last month or so and to say, eventually, that we have to find some optimism to go with the anger, that we don’t have to tear each other apart and that we can recognise things are shit and feel some despair about that while also hoping for and working toward a better future for us all.
The temptation I often feel is to retreat into myself and the group of people that I know and love, but while I feel as though we find the best and happiest moments of our life with the people we love — be they lovers, friends or family — I also think that we need to look out at the world, remain interested in it, remain connected to it, remain engaged with it, build communities and organise together. There has been too much poison recently — most of it, I believe, comes from the Brexit side, particularly the UKIP end of things; but the Remain team has also been guilty of some absurd fear mongering, particularly George Osborne.
For a while, I flirted with Brexit. Or, more specifically, I considered Lexit, the left-wing case for leaving the EU. I read plenty of articles arguing this case, particularly Harvard professor Richard Tuck’s piece in Dissent, which pointed out that one of Marx’s “most striking insights was the observation that the various constitutions of the French republics, and their imitations in other continental states, were deliberately designed to obstruct progress towards genuine democracy”.
The United Kingdom is not constrained by such a constitution, and so Marx and Engels concluded that, in Tuck’s words, “once the English working class got the vote, it would be able to use the House of Commons to achieve its political and economic goals peacefully”. For a great chunk of the 20th century, progress was made along these lines, with the creation of the NHS perhaps the high point.
Tuck writes that the establishment of the NHS would have been impossible in a country with strong constitutional constraints on the legislature, “since it required the large-scale expropriation of private property in the shape of the old endowed hospitals. That is a major reason why so few countries have adopted the NHS model: in most of them it would have been illegal, just as similar proposals would be illegal in the EU today”.
This thought — that something as progressive as the NHS would not be possible to create today because of the EU — is at the heart of the Lexit argument. The EU is an undemocratic, all-consuming neo-liberal beast, and so if leftist policies powered by the British people were to ever be enacted again, they would be rejected by the big, evil super-state.
I most recently saw the way in which European organisations can act to entrench undemocratic, neo-liberal structures, when I visited Brussels last year with anti-TTIP activists. TTIP is a proposed trade deal between the EU and the United States that basically amounts to nothing less than a corporate power grab. It would reduce regulation in a number of key areas, all in the name of “jobs and growth” — a slogan that one Conservative MEP’s assistant admitted to me was bullshit.
(A strange moment on that trip: meeting former BNP leader Nick Griffin outside the European Commission and watching him congratulate a left-wing activist for his opposition to TTIP. The activist was taken aback for a moment, then regained his composure and called Griffin a despicable racist. Griffin took it on the chin and went into a long discourse about how much he admired Russia, something he shares with the more unhinged elements of the British left).
Fear and anger relating to the more neo-liberal, undemocratic elements of Europe are not unjustified. As is fear and anger about bad jobs, poor wages and social and economic disenfranchisement. But many of the architects and supporters of the economic system that fuels this kind of fear and anger can be found at the heart of the Brexit camp. Boris Johnson absolutely loves TTIP. Michael Gove and Nigel Farage are interested in championing the rights of employers, not the rights of workers.
I’m not interested in dismissing everyone voting to leave as racists or idiots. I’ve seen liberals do this and not only do I think it’s condescending, I don’t think it helps those of us who believe that Remain is the best decision. You aren’t going to engage people who feel left out and left behind by telling them they are idiots. I do feel, though, that there is a tragedy in the fact that a vote for Brexit fuelled by those who are less well off will leave those same people even worse off.
I also know that there are plenty of very wealthy people voting for Brexit, people who couldn’t give two shits about the plight of the working class Britons who are turning to UKIP and Brexit as an outlet for their rage and a potential answer to their frustrations. When these affluent reactionaries talk about taking their country back, what they mean is something that, in reality, would be a big step back for the non-affluent.
At the same time, some Brexit supporters have made it abundantly clear that they do not want to live side-by-side with people who have come to Britain from other places, or people whose families are from other places. They have been encouraged and goaded on by a Brexit campaign that has become more and more racist by the day, with Nigel Farage and his petit fascist, anti-migrant billboards being the best representation of this racism. They have gone down the, “I’m not a racist, but…” path.
We need to have a debate about immigration (although of course sometimes it feels like all anyone is talking about) and the effect it has on working class communities — the much-sited Bank of England study on the overall difference immigration has on wages found that while it was really quite low, it was more pronounced for those in lower paying jobs — but that debate cannot happen with Farage the pint-swilling demagogue — not the mention the Daily Mail — as key players. There was a horrible irony to the fact that, on the day Farage puffed himself up in front of the “Breaking Point” billboard, Jo Cox, an MP who championed the cause of Syrian refugees and advocated passionately for remaining in Europe, was killed by a Neo-Nazi.
“Labour has said that it will take measures to stop the creation of low-paid jobs that only migrants can do; and they will take the issue of free movement into a big renegotiation with the EU as soon as possible”, writes Paul Mason, who also points out that no true revolt comes with the support of certain elites, not to mention The Sun and the Daily Mail. Unite the Union has produced a handy poster that breaks down the lies spread about migration.
This poster points out, among other things, that between 2001 and 2011, EU migrants contributed 34% more in taxes than they took out in benefits and services; that the cost to other European countries of treating Brits abroad is more than five times the cost to the NHS of treating EU visitors here; that most migration to the UK is from outside the EU; that EU migrants are much less likely to claim benefits and that, “for decades, we have not built enough homes, since local councils were stopped from building on a large scale in the early 1980s. To tackle the housing crisis we need to build more homes. That is the cause of the housing crisis — not migration”. Unite also says that government cuts are, “why NHS waiting times are going up and some services are disappearing altogether”.
In the end, the more purely political arguments are joined — or even trumped (no pun intended) — by the personal ones. I know that, as a middle-class man who grew up in liberal Islington, in Guardian-reading North London, I’m basically a stereotype Remain voter, an olive oil quaffing elitist who shows a patronising concern for the proletariat while knowing nothing about their real lives. I don’t have the time to tell you, in excruciatingly guilty detail, why that’s not fair. Perhaps it is fair.
I know that where I grew up there’s still plenty of people who have very little money and who feel very let down by our system. There are even more of those people where I live now, a few miles east, in Bow. Here in E3, Labour councillors have told us that the breakdown is quite straightforward: middle-class voters are Remain, Bengali voters (of whatever socio-economic status) are split (even, possibly, pro-Brexit) and working class white voters are for Brexit.
So I’m voting the same way other middle-class people in my area are voting. But my childhood was also a multi-cultural one and my London is a multi-cultural one. So is my Britain. The Brexit campaign, though it may have the support of some non-white voters, is fuelling the kind of macho, nationalistic rage that has always seemed to represent some of the very worst things that being British can mean. This kind of hatred used to be directed at people who came from the colonies Britain so ruthlessly exploited. Now it is aimed at workers from the EU, refugees, and anyone else. It is aimed at some of the world’s least powerful people.
I feel a good deal of ambivalence about voting for Britain to remain in the European Union — we all know it’s very far from perfect and God knows if we vote to remain a part of it I hope it shifts dramatically away from its current penchant for a type of technocratic neo-liberal capitalism — but considering the campaign we’ve had, a vote to remain now seems to carry a greater significance. It can say — to you, to me, to the world — that Britain is capable of being a kinder, more tolerant place and that it can move on from its imperial delusions. That’s a dream, perhaps, but one worth believing in.