Sorry, but I can’t let this one go. Despite quite a bit of helpful feedback from readers I still find myself both alarmed at the prospect of Brexit and puzzled by the motives of those who want to vote to leave the EU. I do not wish to impugn these motives. I am sure that they have good reasons. Nor do I want to sound patronising. Nevertheless I am convinced that the consequences of Brexit would be awful, even if in unintended ways, so here is another attempt to understand what these motives might be and even address some of them. Apologies if I seem to be repeating myself.
- I hate Cameron and Osborne
It is absolutely understandable that you might be appalled by what the Cameron-led Government has done to the poor and vulnerable, and disgusted by its hyprocrisy and opportunism. You may not believe a word they say and you may love the thought of teaching them a lesson. But have you thought this one through? How will we be better off under a Boris Johnson/Iain Duncan Smith/Michael Gove-led government? Equally mendacious, even more xenophobic, with an equally nasty history of picking on the poor and vulnerable and destroying public services – and the possibility that they will remain in power until 2020?
2. I don’t want to be ruled by faceless bureaucrats I didn’t elect
True, the European Commission’s civil servants are not elected; they are appointed, just like British civil servants. But they take their orders from people who are: on the one hand from the European Parliament and on the other from the national governments of the 28 Member States (including the UK). National governments also get to nominate the Commissioners (the equivalent of ministers at a national level) who tell the civil servants what to do. It is true that the European parliament has rather little power, but that is precisely because of the ‘national sovereignty’ that so many Brexit supporters say they want – generally speaking it is the Council of Europe (where the elected heads of government meet) that has the final word. Although it is not in the Eurozone the UK government actually has quite a strong voice there. It was Thatcher, more than anyone, who pushed through the neoliberal agenda in Brussels, seeing off the social-democratic Keynesianism of Jacques Delors which breathed its last gasp in the early 1990s.
3. I am scared of mass immigration
No easy answers here. There are probably more people on the move around the globe now than at any other period in history – fleeing from war, destitution, persecution and the effects of climate change. For historical reasons, including those connected with Britain’s imperial past and, more recently, its warmongering in the Middle East, the UK is both a more attractive destination for migrants and bears more responsibility for their situation than many other European countries. It is, however allowing in fewer people from outside Europe. As for immigration from the rest of the EU, the numbers are not so different from those emigrating from the UK to the rest of Europe, whether this is for work, for retirement or to take advantage of lower property prices and cheap services. Our popular press has been whipping up scare stories about immigration for decades and it is not surprising that fears have taken root, and been exploited by racists. However it is striking that these fears are greatest in precisely those areas where there is least immigration. People who actually live in multicultural areas are, on the whole, accepting of their new neighbours. Immigration is often blamed for lack of housing, overcrowding of schools and hospitals and low wages but all these things are actually the result of government policies (many of them implemented by leading Tory Brexit supporters). They are not inevitable and could be changed by an act of political will (to spend more on housing, health and education and raise the minimum wage).
4. I hate red tape
We live in a world where everything seems to be standardised and regulated. Some of these standards are supposed to protect consumers; others just seem to be for the convenience of companies. We have all got used to looking at the labels to see what additives there are in our food, and filling in forms as a prelude to just about anything. It can be immensely irritating to be told that a call centre can’t talk to you without the right authorisation ‘for data protection reasons’ or that you can’t rent out your spare room without a gas safety certificate or take your dog abroad without a microchip. Encouraged by the mass media, we lay a lot of the blame for these regulations on Brussels. But actually many of them do not come from there at all – they come from bodies like the International Standards Organisation or the World Trade Organisation or international business associations. It might surprise some people to learn that the USA (‘Land of the Free’) is regarded by many as the most over-regulated country in the world, with regulations at local, state and federal level adding extra clauses to each other at an alarming rate. The US Federal Register is over 80,000 pages long*. Anybody who has taken a look at the user agreement for a an Apple or Microsoft product will know how much finicky detail is imposed by global corporations. Could it be that it is the functioning of modern capitalism – not the EU itself – which is tying us up in regulations?
5. The EU is lost to neoliberalism. I want a people’s state
Greece is the most striking example, here, of the way in which democratically elected governments in the Eurozone have been over-ridden and forced to adopt austerity policies that their citizens did not vote for. This is an outrage. And the European Commission is clearly at fault. But, at the risk of seeming nit-picky, I do think it is worth pointing out here that the European Commission was only one of the three parties in the Troika which imposed these horrible and humiliating terms on Greece (and, to a lesser extent, on Italy, Portugal and Ireland). The other two were the International Monetary Fund (which has a global scope and nothing specifically to do with Europe) and the European Central Bank, which covers the Eurozone (which the UK is not in). The most important point here is that the bodies calling the shots are the banks. We could therefore say that (as I already stated in this blog post last week) while the EC is certainly complicit in neoliberalism and in this case helped to do the dirty work for global capitalism, it is not the prime mover. We live in a world where there are many bodies that can over-ride national governments or hold them to ransom, including the World Trade Organisation, World Bank etc. The European Union is one of the intervening layers between them and national governments but getting rid of this intervening layer will not make them go away. Indeed, it might just make it harder to negotiate with them. Those with long memories might remember how the UK’s Labour Government was humiliated in 1976 by the International Monetary Fund, which insisted on deep cuts in public expenditure in exchange for a loan. The EU had nothing to do with this. And it could happen again, regardless of whether we are out of the EU, as it does to many other governments around the world.
6. I am a socialist. I think the Labour Movement can be most effective nationally
Since the last general election there has been a welcome resurgence of socialism in Britain, especially among the young, visible not just in the support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the Labour Party but also in leftward leanings among the Greens and Scottish and Welsh Nationalists. Trade union membership is also holding up well though, at six and a half million members in 2015, it is only half the 13 million reached at its peak in 1979 (though, as France has shown, there is not necessarily a direct relationship between numbers of members and levels of militancy). Labour is very much a force to be reckoned with, still, in the UK. But it is important not to forget its history. The British trade union movement suffered a historic defeat in the 1980s at the hands of the Thatcher Government, at a time when it was larger, better organised and more class-conscious than it is now. Many of the gains it had made in the 1970s (in terms of legal rights) only survived because they were transferred to and embedded in European Directives. The UK now has some of the most anti-trade union legislation in Europe, as well as a trade union movement that, compared with its heyday, is fragmented, depleted and exhausted. Do you really think it could win now, unaided, what it could not defend in the 1980s, under a Brexit Government which would be the most right-wing in British history? Look across the Channel to the French demonstrations over the labour reform bill going on right now. Wouldn’t it be better to be acting in solidarity with those French workers than in isolation? Or, for that matter, with the supporters of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain? How does voting no help such solidarity? And, if we are out of Europe and operating alone, what is the road map to a socialist government?