The frustration is real. The slowdown of 2008 has had serious effects. Austerity has been painful and the government doesn’t seem concerned. Work is more fragile than we’d like, housing is painfully expensive, worries about the NHS are real and there are fears about immigration.
There’s palpable anger at politicians among at least some of those wanting to vote for Brexit. I’ve heard personalised reasons “I’m voting out because David Cameron wants us to vote in” or “because I don’t want George Osborne to be Prime Minister”. I’ve heard general things like “to teach them a lesson” or “to make the EU change”. I’ve heard grander arguments like “stand up to globalisation” or “take our place in the world”.
I can understand each of those reactions. Before the last General Election I went to a party where one person said he was thinking of having a tee-shirt made with the words “I’m not voting for any of them because they are all liars”. I’d gone the other way and tried to make a difference by standing for parliament.
In many of my doorstep conversations with people who say they want to vote out of the EU, I have been left with a sense that it is those who stand to lose most from leaving the EU who are actually being tempted to do this. It’s as if their fears are being played on for the benefit of politicians whose careers would gain from Brexit.
The snag is that the fears are real. The photo comes from an article on research by Demos which highlights a perception that ethnic minorities are more able to influence things. That fits with a sense of alienation and fear I have been encountering on the doorsteps among the less wealthy and predominantly white people who have been talking of voting for “Out”.
If people are afraid of losing their job, or struggling to afford somewhere to live, and the blame can be pinned on “immigrants” coming “because of the EU”, then the government is neatly absolved of responsibility. The EU becomes the scapegoat, so voting for Brexit makes sense. Except that scapegoats are always symbols for the problem, not the actual problem of government failures.
The campaign for a vote to remain in the EU has been taking up a lot of my energy for what feels like a long time. Why does it matter?
The quick version
The short, doorstep comment is that the EU matters because of the peace and the stability, the opportunities and possibilities it brings.
The longer version…
The European Union matters enormously. It has been the context of British political and economic life for decades. It’s tended to under-state its contribution, so people are often not aware of how many development projects or pieces of investment begin in the EU. The contribution has been so great that we can take it for granted — and sometimes rail against its supposed shortcomings without bothering to look at the whole picture. The referendum changes this. Suddenly it might not be there. This posting is not about whipping up fear, but is about expressing some of the richness in which it is rooted, and the contribution it brings.
Culture and history
Europe has a long and convoluted history. There’s an intertwined heritage of culture and religion. There have been centuries of Europeans trading with each other, fighting with each other, sharing cultural influence and sharing faith. Up close, it looks like a story of rivalry. At a distance it looks more like the squabbling of long-married couples, where the words shouldn’t obscure the depth of the connection.
Immigration is a good thing. It is a good thing culturally and economically. We would be diminished without it.
My life is vastly enriched by friendships with people who have come to the UK as immigrants and others who are the children of immigrants. They include people who came seeking asylum and people who came seeking a better life. My life is enriched by other friends who have emigrated, through whom I have valued networks of friends in many other parts of the world.
Economically too, migration matters. People sometimes talk as if there are a finite number of jobs and immigrants increase the competition. This is nonsense. Immigrants come, they work, they buy things, their presence boosts the economy. They create more work and more possibility.
A study published in 2014 showed that European migrants pay substantially more in taxes than they take in benefits. They arrive having finished schooling, and all the costs to the state of bringing people to adulthood.
I’ve heard several people recently talk of the “politics of untruth”, as if things have moved into a particularly surreal space in the age of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. What happens when truth disappears? Are there unconscious things drawing people to vote in a way that makes life worse?
The crude answer is that people believe what they need to believe, which is not primarily about logic. The assertions that EU membership costs £350 Million per week and that Turkey is about to join the EU bringing mass migration have been thoroughly discredited. The fact that people are still believing them says a great deal for people’s needs and fears. Working with unconscious fears is also core territory for psychoanalysis.
The paths of protecting our sovereignty and being proud to be British point firmly towards remaining in the EU. We don’t need to “take our country back” because we never lost it. It is Brexit, not a vote to remain, that challenges all of these things.
If we lived in a world of disconnected nation states, we might not need an EU — except for the small matter of avoiding war. I could argue that this applied for much of European history in that wars were relatively limited affairs (because most of Europe was close to subsistence farming, so there were not the human or financial resources to mobilise for a large war without facing starvation at home). But increased wealth and mechanisation of production and warfare change these things profoundly in the twentieth century.
This morning (2 June) Liam Fox was quoted as blaming immigrants for high house prices — as news came out of a slowdown in construction ahead of the referendum…
It was a masterful piece of Radio 4 news editing this morning (2 June).
First came the pro-EU story: Jeremy Corbyn had made a statement about the contribution of the EU to guaranteeing workers’ rights, pointing out that, without the EU, we would be reliant on the Tories for this protection.
Then the balancing “Leave” story: Liam Fox appealing to the young by claiming that EU membership means they would have to live with their parents for longer because the presence of EU migrants pushes up the demand for housing, and hence house prices.
Then the brilliant editing: the next piece referred to a slowdown in the construction industry because of concerns ahead of the referendum.
It doesn’t take brilliant powers of deduction to work out that less house-building pushes up prices.
The European Union is an impressively democratic organisation which has found an effective way to balance a directly-elected European Parliament and the democratically-elected governments of the nation states. This is the opposite of what the supporters of Brexit are claiming.
The basic structure of the EU can be traced back to the formation of the Coal and Steel Community in 1951. What has grown up is a very balanced and highly democratic process which balances the democratic voice of the peoples of Europe in a nuanced and effective way.
Law-making involves the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, the European Commission, and consultation with the Committee of the Regions. Of these:
The 751-member European Parliament is directly elected by the citizens of the EU.
My eye’s recently been caught by a string of stories from Vote Leave, blatantly scaremongering about Turkey. Yet Boris Johnson and Douglas Carswell were both founder-members of Conservative Friends of Turkey, whose aims include to “Lobby in favour of Turkish membership of the EU”: have they had a politically-convenient change of heart?
The messaging has been blunt. The front page of Vote Leave’s web site currently (29 May 2016) leads with “Turkey joining the EU means even more stress on our country”. There have been posters from them saying Turkey is joining the EU, and an infographic on facebook showing a map of Europe with showing the population of Turkey as 77 Million, and an arrow from there to the UK, as if the entire population of Turkey is coming here. That makes UKIP’s wildly exaggerated claims about migration from Romania and Bulgaria a few years back seem moderate.
Resentment at EU restrictions on fishing is leading many in the fishing industry to want to vote out. Their resentment is real, but their conclusion is wrong…
It is a sadly familiar story. The once-thriving British fishing industry now greatly reduced owing to EU fishing quotas, and, adding insult to injury, there are even regulations that require some fish to be thrown back into the sea. A news spot on Radio 4 recently showed Newlyn fishermen firmly behind Brexit. But this is the wrong conclusion: it attacks the EU at the time when the EU is acting to help the situation.