Whatever we think of referenda generally, this really was a terrible time to hold one. Hardly anyone was really interested in the EU before now, apart from a few Tory obsessives. The rest of us had come to accept it, as a fact of modern life. The things we felt strongly about were jobs, prospects, the people who ruled us, football, immigration, and who should be thrown out of the Big Brother house. (Is that right? I don’t watch it.) Europe came very low down this list. Which means that, when we are told we have to vote on this issue, our minds are on other things. And our stance on ‘Brexit’ or ‘Remain’ is determined by our opinions on those other things, rather than by the issue of Europe itself. Which might be fine if the European issue were central to any of these concerns. But it isn’t.
One of the major problems is that when we were last given a national vote, in the 2015 General Election, the result didn’t reflect our views. A Conservative government came to power, and started acting in a very Conservative way, on the basis of a ‘democratic’ mandate granted in fact by only 25% of the electorate, and 33% of those who voted. Our electoral system, of course, was to blame for that. (See below: https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/.) This left millions of voters (and abstainers) discontented, and with a feeling of helplessness under the rules of the present electoral game.
This happened in a period of almost unprecedented economic depression for the great bulk of people; the unraveling of their welfare safety-net; widening social inequality; the almost daily revelations of various forms of gross corruption – mainly economic, but also moral – by the propertied and political classes and those they protect; the wholesale grab by those classes of what had used to be regarded as public assets (privatization), including, for example, basic social requirements such as water, education and health; the continuation in power of a class of men whose privileged education and lifestyles cut them off entirely from the mass of the people they are governing; the uncontrolled and unwelcome immigration of workers from within Europe and of refugees from outside; and – on top of all this – a new, alien and seemingly irrational terrorist threat, just when we thought we had put paid to the (relatively rational) Irish one. Behind all – or most – of this lies the apparently inexorable advance of the global capitalist hegemon, undermining democracy and taking power away from ordinary people; albeit in a way that only a few of us recognize.
It’s the non-recognition of this overwhelming factor, in fact, that is distorting the responses to our present situation. These are taking many forms. One is a turn to the Right – to Trump in America, UKIP in Britain, the FN in France, and so on. People’s anger is turned against scapegoats who are not really responsible for their woes, but are easily identified, and disliked for other reasons. Another is a turn in the opposite direction, to the Left: Occupy, Bernie, Jeremy, Podemos, and the multitude of other quasi-socialist movements that have sprung up recently. These sorts of reaction have historical form, of course, most notably in 1930s Europe. Opposites in one obvious way, they also share a common cause and origin, and in many cases curiously similar philosophies. Both Bernie and Donald, and both Jeremy and Nigel, rail against essential aspects of the free market capitalist system, for example, although in the cases of Trump and Farage there are obvious reasons to doubt their sincerity. They’re also professedly anti-‘establishment’, which is a great draw for those disillusioned by conventional politics. Other manifestations of this powerful but poorly-focused discontent are various forms of anarchism, ranging from political apathy among the young to its more ideological and destructive forms; nationalism; the Islamicisation of native-born Britons and Americans; the widely remarked on ‘toxicity’ of contemporary political discourse, for example on social media, among people who feel disempowered, or politicians who pander to them; and even – possibly – the English ‘football’ hooliganism we are witnessing just now on the streets of France. All of this must be at least partly attributable to the spread of the effects of unconstrained capitalism among us, in the forms of austerity, inequality, and the primacy of commercial over democratic considerations – which is, of course, the main complaint against TTIP. (See below: https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/05/22/why-not-a-referendum-on-ttip/.) Perhaps. But people don’t realize this. So when an opportunity for another national vote comes up – the referendum, the only truly democratic one they will be allowed until our voting system is fundamentally reformed – they funnel all their discontents into that.
But of course, they don’t really fit. The European Union is not the cause of all their woes. It may contribute to them. Since it became captured by the neo-liberal tendency, it has done little to arrest the progress of the Global hegemon. It has done something: enshrined a ‘social chapter’, for example, which offends fundamentally against neo-liberalism – and which is one of the aspects of the Union the Tory Brexiters want to get rid of. But its underlying principle of the free movement of labour is a neo-liberal one. (Incidentally, it was also fundamental principle of Britain in her days of ‘splendid isolation’ – see my last post but one – when anyone was allowed to come in. There were simply no border controls.) And the EU is still considering whether to accede to TTIP. Those of us who saw the old EEC as a possible bulwark against global capitalism have been gravely disabused. That’s clearly the main reason, and a pretty good one, for Leftists to be attracted to Brexit today.
The trouble is, for us Leftist Remainers, that Brexit probably won’t do the trick; won’t solve, that is, the major grouse we have, which isn’t against Europe per se. Just think: would a Brexit government be more or less likely to resist TTIP? Desperate to replace its European markets with American ones, and in view of most of the leading Brexiters’ known neo-liberal ideology, it might well be more likely to sign up. Might there not be a better hope of sinking it with the help of our European radical allies? Likewise, for those mainly interested in getting rid of the awful Cameron and Osborne, would a Johnson and Gove government be any better? Would those two – again in view of their neo-liberal ideologies – really want to restrict the immigration of cheap labour into Britain? I’m sorry, but I’m afraid the question really does need to be addressed ad hominem. Otherwise frying pans and fires leap to one’s mind. It’s a question not of principle, but of tactics.
That’s the basic problem with this referendum. It’s not about the issue that most people really care about. It’s a vital one, but muddied and complicated by all these others. This is not the time to vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union. But we’re saddled with it; so let’s see what comes of it. I for one will be sitting up all night next Thursday, to follow the results. I have to say that although I’ll be relieved by a Remain vote, I’ll be excited by a Brexit one. It’ll be different, unpredictable, and – dare I say it? – more fun.
Although I must admit that I have made tentative plans to emigrate to Sweden afterwards; in order to observe the effects from a safe – and civilised – distance.