Monday, 20 June 2016
Reasons to stay in the European Union, #7: because we are British
So bitter has our European referendum debate become, and so divisive has it sometimes seemed, that to be honest it'll be good to see the back of it. So today it's time to bring the curtain down on the case for Remain, and to indulge (if you will tolerate it) some use of the personal - some use of 'I', reserved here for critical occasions when the data and the statistics (and the thin gruel of neutrality) won't do. So here goes, all in the first person.
So far, and over the last few weeks, I've usually attempted to demolish the case for leaving the European Union on logical, instrumental and empirical grounds. Hopefully it's been effective. Here's a list, by way of recap. First: there is no way on God's Earth that we will get a better deal than we have now if we leave, as our long and bitter experience of trying to batter our way in on our terms in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrates all too well. Second: we'll be poorer - probably quite a bit poorer - if we do leave. Third: the Russian state would really, really like you to vote Leave, all the better to show how liberal internationalism and the free co-operation of peoples can't really work. Fourth: the British state's very existence might be threatened by Brexit, so angry might the people of Scotland (for instance) be at having their views overridden and ignored. And fifthly: social and environmental protections might be shredded. And so on - all perfectly respectable, falsifiable arguments subject to validity, fact, argument. Disagree if you want: fair enough. Let's debate. So far, so good.
But while I wrote all this, the EU referendum became something more: a battle over the nature of the truth, and a fight against an attempt to Trumpify British politics. The Leave campaign has sailed closer and closer to the edge of complete fiction, until - last week - it crossed over into a land of dark and vile fantasies about a Britain at 'breaking point' because it was faced with long lines of migrants. A world - if inadvertently - that looked like it had been grabbed from a Nazi poster. A nasty, bitter little pill that the British were supposed to swallow - and which they can still refuse.
Hear me out here, before you put your hands up and call for a 'kinder politics'. There's no point being overly polite to people who want to eviscerate the public realm's capacity to bear rational debate and (let's not mince words here) want to degrade our ability to winnow out truth from lies. So: Vote Leave say that the UK sends £350m a week to 'Brussels'. This is not true, and they know it. Vote Leave say that Turkey is about to join the EU. This is not true, and they know it. Some of Vote Leave's leading lights - and a Minister of the Crown, no less - go on social media and say that Britain doesn't have a veto on Turkish membership. This is not true, and they know it. Vote Leave say that a European Army is round the corner. This is not true, and they know it. They put leaflets through people's doors saying that Macedonia and Albania are going to join the EU. This is not true, and they know it. They say that they can leave the EU and squeeze down total immigration while letting more people come from the Commonwealth. This is very, very unlikely - and they know it. They are - how shall I put this? - charlatans. They are not fit even to aspire to lead the United Kingdom. Woe betide us if they do.
And don't tell me that all this is about the 'extremes' and the 'fringes' of the campaign, all hidden away among the slips and the folds of the United Kingdom Independence Party's nastier bits. No. They. Are. Not. As UKIP leader Nigel Farage pointed out when faced with Vote Leave's limp non-disavowals of on him and his nasty poster, they've done exactly the same thing, just in a slightly more polite manner and in a bit more of a lidded, hooded middle-class manner. Well, forgive us again, but these people are hiding behind the formal campaign's rules on 'balance' and 'fairness'. They are taking advantage of the British state's open liberalism to undermine some of its core shared attributes and meaning. They know they'll get airtime however ludicrous and far-fetched their claims, because the law dictates it. They are a clear danger to civility, public dignity and reason itself. They want to write British history in green ink and hatred. Sorry, but there it is.
And the worst part? The most disgusting thing about the whole farrago is that these people - Boris Johnson and Michael Gove as much as Mr Farage - are trading off this pack of lies to waltz their way to power. Just thirteen months after we had a General Election, thank you very much, and we chose a perfectly serviceable administration, they are seeking to overturn that judgement and mount their own Tories-oust-the-Whigs palace intrigue from the eighteenth century. You read it here all the way back in February, remember? Mr Johnson will be Prime Minister. Mr Gove will be Chancellor. It is rumoured (though surely impossible) that Mr Farage will be offered a peerage and a nice comfy position in a Johnson government. Iain Duncan Smith will be back at Work and Pensions. Maybe Priti Patel will take over at Business. Then they'll dole out a few humiliations to more liberal Conservatives who are used to living among the reality-based community, go for a snap election next spring, crush Labour and rule for a decade. Well, we can all see you, and your pathetic, tawdry, look-at-me-aren't-I-clever scheming. Leave might well win on Thursday. Boris might become Prime Minister. But no-one should think for a second that all the chaff and nonsense that's been fired off to hide this design has obscured the truth: that this is a coup against David Cameron's Premiership.
With what means? Telling working people, and people in some of the poorest and most deprived communities across the land - many of whom and which are crying out for some sort of change, any sort of change - that Brexit will make their lives better. Will return money to hospitals. Shorten waiting lists. Free up school places. Well, it won't. It will do the opposite of that. Slower growth will mean less hospital care, fewer school places, longer waits for treatment. More cuts. More pain. That's not my opinion. It's not even almost every single reputable economist's opinion (though it's that, too). It's maths. It's reality.
And when those people realise they've been had? When Boris signs up to the European Economic Area and declares himself all in favour of the free movement of people, or Britain has to accept it for Single Market access anyway? When we take five to seven years to get out of the EU, while immigration peaks as people scramble to get into the UK job market? When things are worse, gritter, more painful? When things haven't changed, but got worse? Well, the whole dark anti-politics mood will turn up another notch. Britons, especially low-income Britons, will poorer and even angrier while London and its elites walk off with even more globalised cash and Russian business than it has now. Maybe Mr Johnson and Mr Gove will blame 'Europeans'. Maybe they will blame 'immigrants'. Maybe that'll work. The truth will be this: the fraud that they are perpetrating against the British people, the plot against Britain, will have come to its bitter fruition. I hope they're used to being unpopular.
So we all have to respond to this wall of lies in our own way. We have to make a decision. An important one, and now one that isn't about the dry-as-dust institutional structures of the EU, about the pound in your pocket, farming subsidies, borders, barricades and tariffs, but about who we are and who we want to be. Are we really going to allow ourselves to be manipulated in this manner? To skulk away, run, hide? Are we truly destined to cower in the margins, to break our treaties, to dismay our friends, to abandon our allies in an ongoing but imperfect Union that needs us so much? To ignore the pleas of Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, the Czech Republic - our natural allies, and the necessary counterweights to Berlin and Paris in our common European home? Are we seriously going to threaten the existence of the United Kingdom, endanger peace in Northern Ireland, put up the barricades at Berwick and Carlisle, embolden our adversaries, walk out of the councils of our continent?
No. No, no, no. We are not. Not if we are British. Not if we are the people that I know, and not if this is the land that we all love.
This vote is not about Europe any more. It is about defending our shared public realm, defeating the mendacious untruths of those who seek to govern us, and defeating a coup that is going on, in all its arrogance and swaggering certitude, in broad daylight - gaming it all out in front of us as if we're not here. They think you are stupid, Mr Gove and Mr Johnson. They think that voters can't tell reality from fantasy. They think they can say anything, while maybe suggesting that perhaps Mr Farage goes a little bit too far sometimes. They can't, in fact, do this - or at least, not for long. Perhaps they will triumph on Thursday. But lasting relevance, decency, credibility, dignity and legacy? Oh, that? That will elude them for as long as they play these poundland games of chance with the future of Britain itself, dicing with hundreds of thousands of jobs, with people's pensions, savings and houses, just to suit themselves.
So: vote Remain on Thursday - for Britain's good, as much as Europe's. Good luck, and I will see you on the other side.