The politics and debate around the Brexit referendum are far removed from the anodyne world of winning over the “don’t knows”, an objective which often characterises general election campaigns in Britain. This, among other things, makes the contest unusually interesting. There is a passionate public discussion under way, especially in England; it is about basic existential questions: what the country is and what it can become. It is as if the English are finally getting around to responding to Dean Acheson’s observation made fifty years ago. For the vast majority it seems the strongly felt and emotional answer is that Britain’s role will not be as one among equals in Europe. It will not be, in the words of Delia Smith – a rare pro-Europe voice ‑ one of a number of democratic countries trying to work together. (Yes, that is Delia Smith the cookery writer; the referendum is engaging people well outside the usual frame; no one feels it should be left to the politicians.)
Basically England is divided between those who want out of the EU and those who want half-out, at least for now. There are very few pro-Europe voices being heard. One Guardian contributor dismissed the genuinely pro-EU element of the population as numbering no more than 20,000. He also said they were probably vegetarians.
The Brexit referendum is not the standard Tory-Labour arm wrestle; the toffs are divided, as are the working classes. New and unprecedented alliances have emerged in a campaign which is decidedly not about pandering to the floaters, as some have discovered to their dismay. One such is Suzanne Moore, who in a Guardian opinion piece lamented:
When I tell people I am a floating voter and undecided, I suppose I naively imagine those who are certain will try to persuade me of their case. In fact, both sides just shout different insults at me.
Others may feel it’s good enough for Ms Moore and that the “don’t knows” have held the whip hand long enough. even though, as the outcome is likely to be close, their votes may actually determine the result.
By early May Boris Johnson had emerged as the main voice on the Leave side. One can see how this happened. Nigel Farage is too marginal and perhaps too peculiar-looking, while older Tories like Iain Duncan Smith, who are the ideological successors of those who built the empire, for the most part inhabit a world which does not value the telegenic imperatives of contemporary life. So, by default, the role of leadership (or perhaps just front man) fell to the “loveable” Boris, with significant help from a very able second tier represented by heavyweight Tory Eurosceptics such as Michael Gove.
However, by the end of the month, as media attention became more focused and the questions more demanding, Boris was pulled off centre stage and the main job was given to Gove. The serious people coordinating the leave campaign realised that Boris – “loveable” as he is ‑ is also a loose cannon. As one Guardian writer put it:
Michael Gove might not be a politician to whom people instinctively warm – or even recognise – but he’s less of a liability on live television than Boris Johnson, who could torpedo the whole campaign with one ill-judged gag. So Johnson was padlocked up for the evening and Gove was let out to see if he could handle the Sky grilling any better than the prime minister had the night before
So Gove, largely unknown, faced Sky’s formidable Faisal Islam. He played a blinder and by common assent outdid Cameron who was on the previous night and who was nailed on not keeping immigration below 100,000 as he had promised. Islam repeatedly challenged the prime minster to explain why the government was failing to meet its target of reducing net annual migration. Forced to respond, Cameron, somewhat lamely, claimed the strength of the labour market had sucked in more workers from abroad than he had anticipated.
Even on the economy, which is the Leave side’s weakest area, Gove did well. He was pressed to name an economist or organisation who believed Britain would be better off out of the EU. He didn’t fall into the trap of dredging up the minor figures who have said exactly that but boldly declared: “I’m glad all these organisations are not on my side … When we had a debate about joining the single currency, a majority of economists then thought we should join the single currency.” This is actually not true but with the failure of economists to foretell the financial crash fresh in people’s minds, the point had impact. Economists have lost credibility with the public, a development which is assisting the Leave side in diluting the effects of their weaker position on the economy.
Commentators agree that Cameron’s public standing has been falling. Indeed, there is mounting evidence the public see him as untrustworthy and a waffler: both terms were used by members of the Sky News audience to describe him. The prime minister’s damaged reputation may be connected with a fundamental difficulty on the Remain side. While advocating that the UK remain in the EU, it cannot campaign on the merits of Europe because, for the most part, its leaders think the EU “is a bad thing”, as does the English public. The Leave side are aware of this and have questioned Cameron’s integrity from early on. As the campaign enters its final phase the attacks on Cameron have gained significant traction with the public, thanks in part to Michael Gove’s effectiveness. Speaking of Cameron’s Sky News appearance Gove said:
I believe that last night, I am afraid, what we heard was depressing and it was an exercise in trying to scare you into not following through what you know in your heart to be right.
This may not sound entirely coherent but its two elements were well heard: Cameron is a scaremonger and in his heart knows Britain should leave the EU. Duncan Smith has said bluntly that Cameron is lying. He said he was astonished at the prime minister’s comments, which he claimed were “deeply insincere – and a clear attempt to deceive the British public”. Three backbench MPs have said David Cameron would face a leadership challenge after the referendum. At the opening of the final stage of the campaign the Tory leader is clearly on the back foot. He has begun to lash out at critics within his cabinet who, in turn, denounce his behaviour as “crass” and accuse him of hypocrisy in sharing platforms with Labour enemies. The media have begun to suspect panic in the Remain camp as the polls continue to show considerable numbers in favour of leaving. Whatever the outcome on June 23rd, it is beginning to look like it might not be the end of David Cameron’s troubles.
So what then is the Remain side’s strategy and thinking? The substantial difference between Cameron and Tory leavers is that the prime minister, having thought about it, does not believe that Britain is strong enough to stand on its own outside Europe and considers it madness to weaken the link – albeit one of subservience ‑ with the US which (Trump aside) has spoken with undiplomatic candour (“back of the queue”) on the question of what it wants Britain to do. On the central question, the Cameron campaign is effectively saying it is better to stick with the unsavoury EU because leaving brings the risk of serious economic decline. And it seems that every important economist and organisation in the world agrees that outside the EU Britain will decline economically. The Remain side clearly have a strong case and indeed have declared that they have won the economic argument. How it is playing with the public is another matter. In many cases it seems emotion is trumping reason. The public are enjoying the Europe-bashing, but that does not necessarily mean they will vote leave.
In comparison the thinking on the Leave side appears extreme, if not crazy. Britain, as a world power, has been in a steady decline since the Great War, an event that saw the end of its naval supremacy, the cornerstone of its imperial triumphs. After that, things continued to go downhill. The Leave side appear to be saying that the twentieth century, the American century, did not happen or if it did it can be ignored and that by an act of will Britain can be great again. Instead of embracing the EU as a rational response to the legacy of the twentieth century, substantial sections of British society have, in response to decline, embraced a type of nationalism which is reminiscent of the wounded Weimar psyche. If this wins out it is likely to lead to pain, and perhaps humiliation. Of course if the EU goes into a major decline, which is a major background question, leaving will be seen as prescient.
Some voices are expressing amazement and horror that such a momentous decision, and one which unlike the results of general elections cannot be reversed after four years, might be made on the basis of emotion. As one writer expressed it:
And yet if Britain walks away, it will be an act of immense political impulsiveness by one of the last countries in Europe that many would expect to behave that way. France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Hungary maybe, according to the old stereotypes. But Britain? How come? We need to be far more honest and questioning about the specifically British things that underlie such an irrational and irresponsible impulse.
Before calling the referendum Cameron sought a range of concessions from Brussels which reflected his and indeed the general English distaste for the EU, its practice and its goals. Some feel he got little of real substance in the way of concessions from Brussels but others see the opt-out from “ever closer union” as highly significant. One such figure is Paul Mason. He believes the opt-out from “ever closer union” was a substantial matter. He says, and he is probably correct, “it means there will probably never be another 28-member treaty”. Mason is an economist, author of the recent bestseller PostCapitalism, and a socialist who fervently dislikes the EU.
The left-wing case for Brexit is strategic and clear. The EU is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organised crime. It has an executive so powerful it could crush the left-wing government of Greece, a legislature so weak that it cannot effectively determine laws or control its own civil service. A judiciary that, in the Laval and Viking judgements, subordinated workers’ right to strike to an employer’s right do business freely.
And yet despite all this fuming Mason will vote to remain, because he fears what the Tory right might get up to post-Brexit:
Johnson and the Tory right are seeking a mandate via the referendum for a return to full-blown Thatcherism: less employment regulation, lower wages, fewer constraints on business. If Britain votes Brexit, then Johnson and Gove stand ready to seize control of the Tory party and turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island.
Mason then, like many on the Leave side, is effectively a nationalist, as opposed to an internationalist, as indeed is Jeremy Corbyn and many others who identify with the Labour Party. Mason cannot see in the EU a political entity which has within it numerous and powerful forces with whom British socialists could work to promote their politics. Similarly, of course, there are plenty of potential allies in Europe for those of a neo-liberal persuasion. It is as if the left and right in England yearn to be left alone to pursue their ancient quarrel.
Neither right nor left will embrace their European allies because the English version of nationalism ‑ a phenomenon which runs across the political spectrum – embodies a persistent feeling of superiority, including a feeling of superiority in relation to Europe. In 1914 the English working classes and their leaders were never going to refuse war in the interests of international worker solidarity. And today they are not much interested in the welfare of Jacques or Hans. Likewise the English establishment were never – with the possible exception of a disorientated three-day-week Edward Heath – going to consider sharing real and substantial power with Europeans. As one writer observed, “since James Callaghan there has been no British prime minister, not even Tony Blair, who thought of Europe as ‘us’ rather than ‘them’”.
Margaret Thatcher set the template in her campaign for the budget rebate. Ever since, British ministers have gone to Brussels to stop things, get opt-outs, cut budgets and scupper common projects. We have never had the confidence to be a team player rather than act the diva. David Cameron’s EU Reform Package is merely the latest example. Even Blair, who was certainly more comfortable in Europe, preferred to talk about Britain leading rather than playing its part.
This nationalism or amalgam of nationalisms is one of the key factors undermining public acceptance of the “sensible” position advanced by the pragmatic nationalists on the Remain side which, in a nutshell, is that burning boats is stupid. It is a thinking which chimes with centuries of English statecraft and diplomacy where relations with European powers were carefully manipulated to ensure a balance of impotence which served British interests. Cameron is simply offering another chapter from the old playbook. Why is that not possible now? Why is that not working now? One reason perhaps is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, in a democracy to win support for a Janus-faced policy. Another crucial reason is because the establishment and deep state in Britain are divided. The establishment is not speaking with one voice and the voice of the working person’s leaders has become a mumble.
One Tory grandee on the Leave side described the campaign as a re-run of the civil war but without muskets. In this comparison the Leave side are the Cromwellians and the Remain side the conservative Royalists. The exceptional compromise of 1688, although sponsored by the Whigs, was significantly conservative and hugely successful; it has prevailed since, proving its adaptability again and again. The heads of the royals are safe but then again they are but figureheads. Functional fudge as opposed to ideological clarity is seen as the English way, and a very successful way it has been.
Cameron and company are reflecting this deep-seated pragmatic impulse; they are recommending caution, saying “let’s slow down here and see how things pan out”. Supporters of Cameron who are hostile to EU ideals believe that he has effectively secured semi-attached status and bought time for the UK to further consider its position. It is a strong card. Despite what Cameron says about this settling the matter for a generation, if circumstances were to change the Tories, of course, would change their approach.
Cromwellians on the Leave side believe that this übercaution is old hat and that there are opportunities for Britain in the new emerging multi-polar world, opportunities which would be squandered by fastening the country to a sclerotic Habsburg-style bureaucratic entity which will almost certainly fail to survive in the new geopolitical dispensation steadily emerging from the postcommunist mists. Some may also suspect that, unlike the twentieth century, the twentyfirst will not be American. The implication is that now is the time to act, to get a jump on history. It’s a cerebral and high-risk position which may not impress plainer folk inclined to the view that fine words don’t butter parsnips.
Fortunately for the Leave side, this is not the argument they rely on for when seeking mass support. Many ordinary English people feel threatened by mass immigration and deeply alienated from centres of power which they feel are responsible for their increasing poverty. John Harris, in an opinion piece, commented:
The timing is surely traceable to the meltdown of the eurozone, the refugee crisis and the sense of a Europe defined by mounting troubles. But there is another factor, which takes us deep into some of the most overlooked tensions in British politics: the condition of England, the 4 million largely English people who last year put jump-leads on British Euroscepticism by voting for UKIP, and a set of deep anxieties and annoyances that panics the political class, while looking likely to get a whole lot worse, whatever the outcome … But there is also loathing of the EU in places where London and its surrounding areas feel like a different planet: superficially deadened areas, often in the north, which have never recovered from deindustrialisation and are now locked into a kind of silent decline – which brings with it a seething disquiet … If asked, a lot of them self-identify as being English – which denotes a bundle of stuff, as much bound up with class as national identity (“English”, in this reading, partly translates as “not middle class”). When it comes to the EU, immigration, needless to say, is usually in the forefront of their thoughts. Sometimes because they apparently don’t like the idea per se, but more often than not because they feel that it is placing impossible strains on housing and public services, and inflaming the injustices of low-end job markets. But there is also something even more elemental: a conviction that centres of power that seem impossibly distant have let them down, and if there’s a chance to split from the most distant one of all, they will grab it in both hands.
Official statistics make it very clear the economic and political divergence between the North and the Southeast (ie London, where there is a substantial majority in favour of staying) will continue to shape English politics. Harris’s view is that this division will persist and will define politics in England irrespective of the referendum result. As he sees it, something is slouching down the M1 waiting to be born. It will probably be unpleasant.
Arguably none of this would be happening had the EU in recent years not turned from a commitment to social cohesion to one favouring market discipline. The EU is about what it has always been about, avoiding war in Europe, maximising prosperity through an open market of 300 million people and by these means gaining geopolitical heft. None of these aims can be realised without public support and cohesion. The EU was necessarily a top-down project rather than one which emerged organically from the vast local diversity and history of antagonism within Europe. Popular support for the project has always been conditional; one means of deepening it has been social supports of the sort associated with Jacques Delors. By turning away from the Delors approach the EU has endangered the entire project. Europe has, arguably, facilitated the British shambles, which may be the first of a series.
Another reason the Leave side is polling so highly has to do the attitude of the Labour Party, which commands the loyalty of a large part of the population. Labour, while officially favouring Remain, will not be organising its supporters to vote Remain. This will hurt the Remain vote, which may require the support of traditional Labour voters.
Jeremy Corbyn, before he became leader, had long opposed EU membership. For Corbyn, who is effectively a nationalist of the left, the problem is that he is not prime minister and the Labour Party is not in government. Corbyn believes putting Labour into power in Westminster is the most pressing matter; Europe is over there and not really relevant.
People in this country face many problems: from insecure jobs, low pay and unaffordable housing to stagnating living standards and environmental degradation, and the responsibility for them lies in 10 Downing Street, not in Brussels.
But he shares Paul Mason’s view that as the Labour Party are not in power, once freed from Brussels oversight, Johnson and his chums would make war on the working class.
The Tories and UKIP are on record as saying they would like to cut back our workplace rights and many unscrupulous employers would have our rights at work off us if they had the chance.
Small wonder this desultory support for remaining has had little effect on Labour voters. The Guardian reported a leaked campaign memo from Britain Stronger In Europe which shows that only about half of Labour voters have realised their party is in favour of staying in the EU, with the rest thinking it is split or believing it is a party of Brexit. Focus groups show that some know Corbyn favours remaining but believe “his heart isn’t in it”.
The Leave campaign comprises an alliance of liberal globalists, nationalists, racists and the dispossessed, with the ghostly presence of Labour and left elements. It is unlikely to endure but it is an alliance which for the moment gives the maximum potential strength to the Leave side. Against the background of a Europe in serious crisis this alliance could conceivably win. Indeed this outcome might be a necessary prerequisite to Europe regaining its mojo and England finally confronting its imperial past.
In the meantime, as part of the general anti-Europe festival, Boris Johnson has compared the ambitions of the EU to those of Adolf Hitler. Remain leaders tried to present this as a major gaffe and accused Johnson of losing his “moral compass” and making “offensive and desperate” comments. There was a great deal of moral huffing and puffing from the Remain side in the immediate aftermath but in some ways it was the later responses which are more telling.
Johnson was speaking not to a piece of straight bananas nonsense but to an apprehension about Europe deeply embedded in English culture. England’s experience of Europe over centuries is of a place which harbours dangerous ambition, heavy with threats to English autonomy. Boris Johnson also spoke of Napoleon and the Holy Roman Empire in this context and emphasised that the EU was using “different methods” to those employed by Hitler. But Napoleon’s exertion is remote history and the Nazi regime is anything but. Johnson’s message was heard loud and clear up and down the country. In polite society it is unsafe to compare anything to Hitler but Johnson clearly felt it was worth the risk in order to keep the anti-EU base fired up.
The outrage of the Remain side was largely tactical, but for Europeans who recall authoritarianism of one sort or another, Boris Johnson’s statement was offensive. The Polish president of the European Commission, Donald Tusk, responded. “When I hear the EU being compared to the plans and projects of Adolf Hitler I cannot remain silent.” Johnson’s remarks also triggered disbelief in Germany. A spokesman for the Social Democratic party (SPD), said he was “speechless at what stupidity nationalism can trigger in seemingly intelligent people”. Within Britain the factual point was made by the pro-EU Michael Heseltine. The EU, he said, “has been an incredible political change to twenty-eight free democracies voting together. And Boris can talk about Hitler?”
In a Guardian opinion piece Matthew d’Ancona argued that Johnson had a respectable position. He commented on the intellectual background:
In his book The Tainted Source (1997), the scholar John Laughland argued that far from being the institutional consequence of the Third Reich’s defeat, the EU was another means of pursuing many of its objectives. Goebbels, for instance, had hoped to end customs barriers, create a single market and fix exchange rates, while Hitler aspired to sweep aside the “clutter of small nations”.
Cabinet minister, leader of the House of Commons and Leave campaigner Chris Grayling declined to criticise Johnson, arguing that
[t]here is a clear plan in Brussels, as part of the need to support the euro, to move towards much greater political integration. Boris was making a historian’s point. Boris is a historian. What I’m interested in is what the European Union itself is trying to do. What Boris was talking about was the reality of the drive towards greater political integration.
Undoubtedly the Leave side has had all the best lines, which have been hugely enjoyed across England. It also has a broad and unprecedented coalition which will help maximise the Leave vote. But when it comes to actually voting will the vast numbers comprising the comfortable middle classes of England leave their semi-detached houses to cast their votes for a “Sinn Féin” solution and the likely partition of Britain? It seems unlikely. The blonde Boris is great fun but Dave, the careful brunette, is surely more likely to be chosen. If this is the outcome, Europe may be the greatest loser; the old feline’s claws may be somewhat retracted but she will continue to spray the furniture at will.