Less than a week out from the Brexit vote, the ‘leave’ side is in the ascendant. But it’s hard to find much to admire in either camp, writes David Hall. Plus: a word on Jo Cox
If the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, it deserves everything that comes to it.
Perhaps what comes will be positive: business-as-usual plus more muscular national sovereignty, freedom from meddling Eurocrats, and control over the contested effects of immigration.
Or perhaps it won’t be so. Multiple scenarios are plausible, and it’s in the nature of politics that there’s no certainty how things would play out.
The most dramatic possibility is the complete collapse of the European Union. Some warn that Brexit – the referendum is June 23 – will be a catalyst for resurgent nationalism across the continent.
My hunch is this is overly alarmist. As I’ve written elsewhere, modern Europe is a multi-layered beast, which member states – and even non-members – are complicatedly aligned to. Just like you can remove a gherkin from a burger without it ceasing to be a burger, you can remove the UK from the EU while leaving the other ingredients intact. For example, the UK’s departure from the EU doesn’t necessarily mean a departure from Europe’s “common market”, the European Economic Area (EEA). The UK could join other EU-shirkers in the EEA like Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. Or it could rely on bilateral agreements instead, like Switzerland.
But you never know. The EU could be in a vengeful mood after losing its second largest economy. The case of Greece and its aborted Grexit shows that when EU leaders take a hard line, it’s a very hard line indeed.
Meanwhile Brexit would undoubtedly boost the likelihood of Scexit, a renewed push for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom. Given Scotland’s affinity for the European project and its deep-rooted grudge against English imperialism, the schisms are likely to appear inside the UK, not only outside
And this, as I said, would be utterly deserved.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s equivocations over immigration are key to this. Anti-immigrant sentiment is the life-force of the “Leave” campaign. Yet throughout his term as leader, Cameron tried to have his cake and eat it too, pandering to populist calls for restricted borders while appeasing the pro-EU inclinations of business and finance. To appeal to the former, he proposed immigration quotas. But to satisfy industry’s demand for cheap labour, he allowed those quotas to be overshot year after year. He wanted to be seen to be doing something, while never doing enough to frustrate the interests of global capital. And when immigrants were blamed for housing shortages, unemployment, and pressure on the NHS, Cameron made only the mildest interventions, because blame being directed at immigration was blame not being directed at his government’s own policies.
As a strategy, this might prove too clever by half. But the Conservatives aren’t the only guilty party.
Ed Miliband made a similar wager. As Labour leader, he claimed to “take immigration seriously”. Yet he never convinced the blue-collar nationalists who were defecting from Labour to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), never to return. Their judgments were surely accurate too: Miliband lacked the xenophobic resolve to ever take immigration that seriously, certainly not as seriously as UKIP. It can’t have helped his case, either, that Miliband was unambiguously pro-EU.
With Miliband’s defeat and the electoral evisceration of the Liberal Democrats, the EU lost its boldest defenders in England. The “Remain” campaign fell to two politicians, David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn, who, quite possibly, in their heart of hearts, don’t really care that much for the EU.
For Corbyn, that’s a matter of public record. He voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975 and opposed other key treaties since. Unsurprisingly, his campaigning has been tepid, distracted, and unpersuasive. At best, he’s like some gloomy spouse who promises that he’s committed to marriage, but drags his heels with every step, willfully going through the motions, hoping that someone else will call for divorce.Little wonder that Labour has resurrected that old battleship, Gordon Brown.
For Cameron, the record is more ambivalent. After years of hedging, he plumped for “Remain” when he announced the in/out referendum in February. Yet Steve Hilton, his one-time ideas guru, recently claimed: “If [Cameron] were a member of the public or a backbench MP, or a junior minister or even a cabinet minister, I’m certain he would be for leave.” The other possibility, not at all infeasible, is that Cameron actually doesn’t believe in very much, that he plays the game as given, unencumbered by firm convictions.
And so, for all this, the UK will get what it deserves. Polls show the “Leave” campaign drawing ever closer to “Remain”. Caution in the voting box may yet prevail, but the “Leave” campaign marches on highways paved by years of deranged advocacy from the tabloids, whose editors profited from hysteria without responsibility for the repercussions.
And if it’s Brexit, for many Britons, there will be little to lose, because they’re already at the bottom of the heap. Economic arguments for“Remain”are moot when rewards fall in someone else’s pockets. A Brexiteer once told me that he didn’t support UKIP because he was racist, but because he opposed “the hierarchy” (or, as he said in proper Cockney, “Oy-rah-kee”).It was all about cocking a snook – by way of Brussels – at the toffs in Chipping Norton and Hampstead Heath.
A risky form of protest, to be sure. But something’s got to give – and, right now, this referendum is all that’s on offer.
Postscript: This column was written the day before the utterly abysmal murder of Jo Cox, Labour MP for Batley and Spen. As tributes attest, she was one of Parliament’s most decent voices.
Politics is always unpredictable – and the potential for violence is at the heart of this. A private tragedy for Cox’s husband and two young children will inevitably feed into public debate overcoming days. (The referendum campaign is already officially on hold.) The event could even influence the judgment of voters: perceptions of disorder are known to favour the status quo. Yet if the murder of an MP in England is shocking, the reality of violence inflicted on women by men is not, nor the influence of extremist nationalism. It is a stark reminder that not everything that England fears comes from beyond its borders.