Tuesday 31 May 2016

Brexit stage right? I hope we don't.

An old friend sends me this contribution to the referendum debate, titled June 2016:

Observe the condescension and disdain
Of those Important Men who urge ‘Remain!’
We want the thing that they appear to hate:
An Independent Democratic State.

The time is come to cast off foolish fears
And loose the shackles of the wasted years:
Let’s be again the people we have been
- Ah! what a birthday present for The Queen!

I don't suspect irony. My friend is a monarchist. His first verse reminds me that the Leavers have mastered what George Bush senior once called “the vision thing”. They are fluent in the language of sovereignty and freedom, while the Remainers seem to speak only of money. Business leaders understandably emphasise the financial consequences of Brexit. Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the CBI says, “The message from our members is resounding – most want the UK to stay in the EU because it is better for their business, jobs and prosperity” (1). But we might expect our leaders to offer something more uplifting.

Chief among those “Important Men” urging us to stay are the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. “Condescension and disdain” come naturally to them. Cameron adds a note of desperation, having, in defiance of his own pro-Europe convictions, gambled the nation’s future for short term political gain. If this referendum were simply a vote of confidence in the Tory leadership, I’d be queueing for the exit.

I’m not blind to the difficulties the EU faces. The 2008 crash exposed the weakness of the Eurozone. The refugee crisis has done the same for the Schengen area. There are no simple solutions to these problems and I understand the impulse to walk away from the whole complicated mess. But where to? The past is no longer available. In the world of cutthroat global capitalism, plucky little Britain going it alone is a mythical island. If we can’t make our voice heard in the European Parliament, what chance do we have in the boardrooms of ExxonMobil or Pfizer or Amazon?

June 2016 characterizes such thoughts as “foolish fears”. Its second verse slides into reverse gear, hinting at a Golden Age of independence and democracy when we had only ourselves to take care of. But it was never just us –not since the first Elizabethans began colonising America. For centuries we were part of a larger entity on which our wealth and power depended. The Empire worked as long as the illusion could be maintained that our exploitation of other peoples, who had neither democracy nor independence, was for their own good. That’s over and few people feel nostalgic for it.

At its best the Leave campaign appeals to our courage and sense of heroic independence, but the drive to get out of Europe is mainly fueled by less noble ambitions. To the powerless, suffering the effects of austerity piled on top of recession, Brexit is sold as a way of closing our borders, as if the paucity of public housing, the creeping privatization of the NHS and the widening gap between rich and poor were the fault of EU migrants, a group who in reality, according to recent HMRC figures, paid 3 billion in tax for the year ending April 2014 and claimed only 500 million in benefits (2).

We're told we could have a new hospital every week with what we pay the EU. Is that the plan, then? Even if we saved anything like this amount, would a Tory government under Boris Johnson invest it in public services? There’s no reason to think so. Johnson has been Mayor of London for eight years during which global developers have run amok. New towers dominate the skyline and thousands of luxury apartments are left empty by foreign property investors while working Londoners are priced out of the market (3). As Prime Minister he would be likely to pursue a similarly aggressive free market agenda.

In the face of Government opposition, EU law has brought us cleaner drinking water, cleaner air, and less polluted rivers and beaches (4). A report commissioned by the TUC notes that the EU has provided “access to paid annual holidays, improved health and safety protection, rights to unpaid parental leave, rights to time off work for urgent family reasons” and “equal treatment rights for part-time, fixed-term and agency workers” (5). The British Human Rights Act, which brings us into line with European law, establishes rights to free speech and personal privacy that were not previously protected (6). The shackles that the Brexit leaders want to be liberated from are regulations such as these.

There’s a danger that the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, added to decades of fake news stories about EU bans on everything from curvy bananas to bagpipes, will induce people to vote against their own interests, and not just financially. This would be a good time to celebrate the wider vision of the EU, how British lives are enhanced by the freedom to travel, study, work and settle in other European countries, and the many ways we benefit from the free traffic of ideas and culture among nations bound together by proximity, tangled history and shared interests.