My EU Nightmare Is Over

Lasted the Longest

It’s taken a while, four months to be precise, but I’ve finally reached a decision on how to vote on referendum day. Because this vote’s about me and not your so-called lives, the journey to the ballot box has engendered self-doubt and profound political anxiety; in short, an existential crisis.

Though liberal and internationalist by constitution, I’ve not been content to enjoy the virtue signalling arrogance and contempt for Brexiters that’s been the hallmark of chaise lounge pundits lacking the courage to reflect upon and challenge their most cherished assumptions, or the will to read around.

Yeah, that told you, didn’t it?

Back in February, as the referendum campaign yawned into life and the hawks on both sides began urinating on their favoured chunks of discursive territory, repelling neutrals and cats alike, I decided to benchmark my soft Euroscepticism, record where I was at the beginning as it were, and blogged a corrective to what I saw as a Europhile truism, the idea that the EU is a force for progressive politics, adding metropolitan spice to our cultural brew, and broadening our domestic outlook.

In doing so, I was conscious that I’d fallen into the Leave trap of wanting to give the aloof, haughty liberal intelligentsia an iron bar to the balls. People like me were the reason they wanted to disenfranchise millions of sentimental Westphalians. You can’t trust an idea as big and important as the United States of Europe with its presumptive citizens.

That the project was clandestine and furthered without popular consent was a huge problem for me, the kind that made me go for Remainers the way a psychosexually damaged person goes for anyone who shows an interest. European institutions and the democratic scaffolding bolted thereon, has been designed to keep voters at least two removes from the decision makers, with MEPs, the only verifiable manifestation of our glaze-eyed demos, elected on a proportional basis from a party list. One imagines they feel as directly accountable to us as a filmmaker does when you complain your cinema seat’s stained with cum.

Yes, this kept me up nights, long after the local prostitutes had tip-toed out, taking the counterfeit cash that they couldn’t quite scrutinise in the gloaming from the bedside table. It made we wonder, just as it plagued Euro-haters like the late Tony Benn, whether the fundamental left-wing case for Brexit was unassailable, regardless of the less cogent or inhumane arguments often grafted to it, then righteously proffered in its name. That’s right, I’m talkin’ ‘bout immigration. And feeling, knowing, that the EU had been built and strengthened as a means to safeguard peace and prosperity on the basis of doublethink like circumventing electors – a matter of record if you care to know it – made confronting the ugly side of the Brexit argument, the domestic violence that comes with the twelve cans of supermarket lager, an uncomfortable and dehumanising experience.

Forget the official faces of the Leave campaign – rabid monoculturist and hypocrite Nigel Farage (autocorrects to fascist), Harry Potter Basil Hallward portrait, Michael Gove, and narcissist strawman Boris Johnson – the problem with having any sympathy for the Brexit case is meeting ordinary Brexiters. Whether it’s the leafleteer on the high street who turns away in disgust when you suggest she may want to live and work on the continent, the man in the pub who conflates pulling out with imperial nostalgia, the dark side of Twitter, that without exception – and here I talk about ordinary epigrammists, not the blue tick brigade – see Brexit as a social cleansing exercise, every encounter is a direct and formidable challenge to the idea that denying these people their say in the country’s future has been an indefensible affront to the Great British Public (GBP). How formidable? Well, I doubt Smokin’ Joe Frasier felt any less apprehensive ahead of The Thriller in Manilla. At least he knew the worst that could happen was death. What’s worse than death? Living with the knowledge you’ve inadvertently allied yourself with the ugliest elements in society and the demagogues who’d manipulate them.

But immigration matters, because of the serious charge that it leads to wage compression at the low end of the income scale and is changing white working class communities beyond recognition. The BBC screened a fascinating documentary, The Last Whites of the East End, showing the 20th century residents of Newham, East London, contemplating white flight to the new safe harbour of Essex, in response to large-scale economic migration having comprehensively displaced their tribe. The argument, we learned, was not that foreigners had taken all the jobs, for such talk as Nicholas Barr at the LSE notes, is bollocks, as an upsurge in population creates greater demand in the economy (the idea that there’s x amount of jobs to go around is called the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy), rather that immigrants had vandalised the culture.

The multicultural dream in Newham was a fantasy, said the would-be Big Brother housemates under glass, as newbies refused to integrate. This made the only viable option moving to a single community where working class whites would do the exact same thing. Yet it was an eye-opener, a film that showed the issue was whatever passed for indigenous values, bound, naturally, to Christian virtues, and the perception these were now under threat.

Tony, a West Ham fan who no longer felt comfortable on the streets he’d pissed on as a child, had married a Romanian woman. But there was no contradiction because she shared his moral system. In other words, she wasn’t a Muslim. Watching this fascinating bit of anthropology, the participants unwilling or unable to confront their own hypocrisy, I had to accept that whatever one thought of the locals, most of whom were broad and boorish, they were victims of social policy in which market economics, rather than social cohesion, had been the primary driver. The key question was the identity of the culprit: domestic policy or the EU’s free movement of people principle. If the latter, did I care?

So it was around now, satisfied that I’d identified the key issues, namely sovereignty and immigration, (both cultural and economic), that I returned Daniel Hannan’s book Why Vote Leave to the ICU waiting room at my local hospital, and started to look for facts that would once and for all settle the question of whether the EU was something done to us that was good, like fluoride in tap water, or bad, like ATM bank charges.

I went to debates – lots of debates, in which Leave’s simple message, delivered in the demotic, contrasted with the more nebulous arguments to remain, tellingly framed as a lecture in political science. I listened to hundreds of hours of TV and radio conversation in which representatives of the so-called establishment tried to fight off, half-heartedly, those who argued, with the force of history, that the EU was hostile to reform and allergic to scrutiny, defaulting to the government’s go-to strategy of fluffing your inner monetarist. A case of never mind the erosion of statehood and its social impact, feel the benefit to your mortgage rate, house price and employment prospects. I tried not to dwell on the irony that the tenets of Thatcherism were now being used to defend the creeping union she grew to despise.

But in the end, at long last, real information shorn of propaganda and prejudice, began to trickle though – in print, online, from independent economists I trusted like, er, Paul Mason, and the case for Remain acquired heft. Bagehot was helpful in The Economist, arguing that real sovereignty was relative. This wasn’t just a comment on globalisation, though it informed the argument, rather than supra-national cooperation was a fact of life and would remain so, Brexit or no. North Korea was the most sovereign country on Earth, he said, because it was free of outside interference, though it struck me that even this wasn’t strictly true, as its madness was guaranteed by China and its isolation by the rest of the world – in other words, its xenophobia was conditioned by cultural, economic and politics forces external to it; it was a slave nation, a vassal state.

Depending on who you read, the UK was signatory to anything between 700 and 1400 international treaties, and held hands with the WTO, UN and NATO. Thinking of those three, it occurred to me that the great challenge to British identity came not from Europe but from the US, who’d bled into our language, economic policy and popular culture in a way our EU partners manifestly had not. No one talked about that because the ties that bound were invisible and for the most part, not formalised by a thumping great symbol like the Treaty of Lisbon. Even Kathy Beale on EastEnders drops the occasional Americanism into her chat these days. I’ve never heard her use French.

Paul Mason, writing a mini-manifesto for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, whose pro-EU stance on immigration makes Remain highly vulnerable to the wrath of threatened white working class voters, as featured in the BBC documentary, acknowledged that free movement in its current form did hurt low-income earners, and by the same token encouraged immigrants to come to poor areas. But in lucidly arguing for the Islington beard to hike the minimum wage to £12, make it illegal to hire staff from a single nationality for certain jobs, e.g. Italians as baristas, and introduce a training levy for employers hiring non-UK workers, amongst other things, he inadvertently reminded me that extant grievances were a consequence of domestic policy, not EU diktat, and could be changed at Westminster if the political will existed.

The Lisbon Treaty needs renegotiation, he added – debt written off, privatisation initiatives ended, the Stability and Growth Pact mandating austerity scrapped – but the message was, don’t throw the baby out with the goat’s blood. The arguments for these changes, crystallised by the referendum, would now be immediate like ever before. In other words, Europe was having a near death experience. Change or die. If we left, it might die anyway but we’d have the State version of locked in syndrome.

So the EU may have enabled mass immigration but it’s been our unwillingness to control the supply market that had caused social problems. The EU took away some of our sovereignty, but not enough to constitute a coup. 55,000 EU civil servants draft proposed legislation that 393,000 UK civil servants amend, with parliament ratifying the mongrel instruments. The democratic deficit was there, for the people are sovereign and most of them haven’t a clue what MEPs are doing in their name, or for that matter what the UK parliament’s giving away while they’re distracted by more immediate domestic concerns, but this can and I thought, on balance of probability, would be reformed in time.

And with that I decided to vote Remain on June 23rd. It has nothing whatsoever to with our idiotic Prime Minister or his imbecilic retinue, and quietly ignores the harping, sanctimonious Scottish Nationalists, whose hypocrisy is total and threat to decouple from the rest of the UK if England votes Leave, empty and politically unworkable in the timeframe they’d have to carry it out.

Rather, Brexit is a false God – an apparent panacea for our social ills and domestic policy fuck ups, wilfully blind to the interrelated political and economic forces that create them, and an argument for nationalism that masks a deep-seeded mistrust of difference. Its advocates use the language of compassion and inclusivity – caring for the health service, homes for everyone, better public services, while hoping to usher in a new era of hard-line Conservative thinking that would almost certainly destroy all of the above.

It’s been a long journey to end up where I’ve been most of my life then, but I can cast my vote next Thursday satisfied I’ve strength tested my instincts. If everyone who votes next week has also taken time to jump on the floorboards, the result will be considered, not an affirmation of prejudice or self-righteousness, and that can only add depth and understanding to the long and torturous debate that follows.

Published in: on June 16, 2016 at 11:03  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. These are, in more “demotic” terms, if I’ve understood correctly (that’s like one of those cruel joke words isn’t it?) essentially the arguments I’ve been using for a while, but it has felt pretty much like fighting a constant battle against a vicious media shitstorm from a tiny, paddleless boat adrift in a vast and ever expanding sea of bs. And I suffer from terrible seasickness in the best conditions. [Disclaimer: any apparent allusion to the Boaty McBoatfight #flotilla is entirely unintentional].

    Anyway I’m glad someone else has got there. In fairness my initial instinct was remain, but I have been reading around to challenge it, and watched myself go from fairly sure, to totally confused, and back again to settled more strongly in my original position. Ultimately I just couldn’t find anything that persuaded me that we’d feel any solid, practical benefits upon leaving, whereas the benefits of being in seemed fairly obvious, particularly as someone who works in the arts sector. Even the ideological stance of Lexit seems like something that ought barely to make an appearance on the list of priorities when our “democracy” is being continually eroded far more blatantly at the domestic level than it ever has been by “interfering” Europe.

    Saw this post shared on Facebook and will reshare in the hope it might settle one or two currently vacillating minds.

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