- 07 Jul 16
The UK referendum was won by the Leave side on the promise that Britain would take back control of its borders. Their victory will stoke far right, anti-immigrant sentiment across the continent.
A Confederacy of Dunces. The phrase occurred to me even before Boris Johnson was so thoroughly exposed as a paper tiger.
There are times when the stars align and things fall beautifully into place. What happened in relation to Brexit was the opposite: so many might not have beens coalesced and we ended up with a triumph for ugliness, nastiness and disharmony. That it needn’t ever have happened only makes it all the more sickening.
Let’s remember where it all started. In a moment of weakness and stupidity that he will regret for the rest of his life, the leader of the Conservative Party, and the Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, decided that it was time to deal with the Eurosceptics within his own ranks.
A bunch of the more reactionary Tories saw their right wing patch being usurped by Nigel Farage’s execrable UKIP rabble and were fearful that the attack on their flanks might cost them seats in Westminster. Sensing that this constituted an increasing threat to his leadership, Cameron decided to throw his critics a bone that would shut them up at least for the moment. He announced that he would run a referendum on EU membership. It was a way of preventing further defections to UKIP and of staving off fresh internal wrangling. It was, it turned out, also a gamble on an unprecedented scale.
By the time the date for the Brexit Referendum was decided, the mood had shifted to the right in many European countries. The migrant crisis, with hundreds of thousands of displaced people marching from the Middle-East towards Europe sparked panic. The IS-sponsored atrocities in Paris and Brussels hardened public opinion even further. The fact that Britain was among the countries responsible for creating the vacuum in Iraq and in Syria that is being filled by ISIS was ignored. A largely bigoted, right wing media stoked the anti-immigrant fires in the UK, and it worked.
At every stage, rather than risk taking the high moral ground, as Angela Merkel had in Germany, the Tory party chose to assuage the xenophobes. But on the likely result of the referendum they remained complacent, allowing the Leave campaign to gather momentum.
In 2008, David Cameron had made another politically fatal mistake. Determined to wrestle London from Labour, he backed the idiotically popular Boris Johnson to run for Mayor. It might have seemed like a masterstroke at the time. Boris’ silly schoolboy demeanour and his publicity-positive bumptiousness held a bizarre attraction for voters. He swept to victory. I am sure that Cameron imagined that Boris might be grateful. Perhaps he was. But not so grateful that he wouldn’t eventually stick a knife in Cameron’s back to further his own political career.
In an act of shameless political opportunism, Johnson declared for Leave. He thus became the de facto head of the Tory ‘out’ campaign and was Leave’s most prominent representative in the media. Cameron might have been entitled to see it as an act of treachery. But Johnson made no secret of his ambition to lead the Conservative Party and this was a potential short-cut. More than anything else, that was his motivation.
With the Tories deeply split on the issue of Brexit, the onus began to fall heavily on the Labour Party. But here the stars were misaligned too. When Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of Labour, no one was thinking of the Referendum on Europe. He has many likeable and admirable qualities, but it would be hard to imagine anyone less suited to leading Labour’s Remain campaign than Corbyn.
For a start, he harbours his own brand of Eurosceptcism. But he also has an odd, semi-detached air. He is the antithesis of charismatic. His appeal does not run much beyond the members of the Labour Party who elected him. And he is not a very good organiser.
As a result, Labour seems to have barely engaged on Brexit. Why? For a start, Jeremy didn’t fancy sharing a platform with David Cameron. And then, when he did finally deign to get involved, his entry into the campaign was hopelessly ineffectual.
Meanwhile, other forces on the left also saw the campaign in terms of political advantage – and chose that over the common good. We all know that the EU is a deeply flawed institution; also that it has tilted damagingly towards the right in recent years; and that it colluded in the manifest injustice of the socialisation of private debt, as a way to get through the banking crisis. In all of this, the EU was wrong both morally and politically, and undermined its own standing. But the idea that it might have happened differently, in Britain on its own, or elsewhere, under a Tory government, is laughable.
When you boil it all down, the Leave campaign was largely based on xenophobia. Its trump card was the promise that leaving the EU would allow Britain to control its own borders. That, pro-Brexit campaigners promised, would work as a way of reducing the level of immigration dramatically: it would keep Muslims out, stop the Poles coming and taking all the jobs in construction – and guarantee that hordes of Turks would not be allowed in to further pollute the sweet roses of Albion.
It is difficult to fathom how anyone on the left could align themselves alongside this sick, paranoid, noxious brand of politics. But that is what they did. Is it because they believe that conflict is a necessary stage on the road to the ultimate socialist victory? In that view of the world people losing their jobs is a good thing: it brings them closer to the despair that might support an uprising.
It is much more likely, however, that the Leave victory will have precisely the opposite effect – that we will get the conflict alright, followed by a further lurch to the right. It has already afforded a twisted kind of political respectability to UKIP that it would otherwise never have achieved. It has given give further momentum to far right groups all over Europe. It will up the ante, in terms of the way European states in general approach the refugee crisis. And as a result, it will, almost certainly, push all of Europe towards intolerance.
However badly Cameron misjudged things, and he did, in the end it was Labour and those further to their left who handed victory in the Referendum to Farage and his thugs. A huge number of Labour voters defected to the UKIP side. All across the north of England in what had been considered Labour heartlands, Leave cleaned up.
And the effect was immediate. In Britain, the number of racist attacks increased five-fold. Even here in Ireland, it seemed to give racists a fresh sense of confidence. In a country that has been relatively free of hate crimes, an appalling attack took place on a blind refugee from Afghanistan. There may be more where that came from.
What was missing from the entire debate was any genuine sense of what the European project was, or is, about. After the second World War, with much of the continent in ruins, the realisation dawned that it was essential for European states to find a way of working together, of co-operating with one another, in order to remove the threat of war from the European landscape.
Ancient foes in Germany, France, the Netherlands and elsewhere began the process which led to the creation of the EU. And for seventy years, as a result of the emphasis on solidarity and co-operation, which is at the heart of the European Union, the vast bulk of Europe has remained free of the deadly spectre of war.
You might quibble about the direction it took on this issue or that, but a world in which the democratically elected heads of governments from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Ireland and latterly places like Poland and Hungary, as well as former colonies of Russia like Lithuania and Latvia, could sit around the table as equals and formulate policies that would be peacefully put into effect across such a culturally diverse land-mass, in a spirit of peaceful co-existence, friendship and harmony represents one of the greatest political achievements in history.
We know from the disintegration of Yugoslavia just how fragile peace can be. There the communist dictator Tito had held in check the latent hostilities between Croatians, Serbians, Montenegrans and Bosnians. When he died, the inhibitions unravelled. A horrible wave of militant nationalism was unleashed. Tensions that had merely simmered burst into open warfare and ethnic cleansing. It was horrendous, brutal stuff which resulted in the deaths of 140,000 people.
In contrast, the EU has provided a set of institutions which have effectively managed historical tensions among member states – and in this, it has been a remarkable, sustained success. Its reach had latterly extended to 28 separate States. And not only did it act as an agent of co-operation and understanding, it also gave nations that live in fear of invasion from an increasingly belligerent Russia an umbrella under which to take refuge.
Why would anyone want this historic accord to be put at risk? As a letter writer to The Irish Times eloquently put it: “Give me peace, co-operation and all the benefits of a flawed EU over nationalism and hostility any day.” People talk about the democratic deficit in Europe – but compared to where? Russia? China? The United States? Brazil? India? Saudi Arabia? Nigeria? Qatar? To work towards achieving a greater sense of democracy in Europe is important. But it is equally important to ensure that we don’t descend into a re-enactment of the madness that destroyed Europe in the 20th century.
Of course, you can argue that the decision of the British people to leave should not have any real effect in relation to any of this. But that is to underestimate the power of momentum, and the extent to which mobs can be whipped into increasingly belligerent, excessively nationalistic and ultimately fascistic positions. Who in Germany in 1932 foresaw the grotesque excesses of the Nazi regime? But there are now neo-Nazis all over Europe who have been emboldened, and are plotting and planning even as we speak, convinced that their hour may have come around again – slouching towards Sunderland, as it were.
The ludicrous thing is that none of the Little Englanders in the UK has a clue what is supposed to happen next. Having been betrayed by his closest Tory ally Michael Gove, Boris Johnson’s attempt to lead the Tories collapsed ignominiously: we knew that he was a bounder and a cad but now he is exposed as a witless one.
Meanwhile the lies of the Leave campaign were also nailed: there is no £350 million a week to plough into the NHS. There never was and there never will be. Nor have the Leave Tories any intention of reducing immigration if it hurts business. So where does that leave the disillusioned working class voters of the North East of the country who swung so heavily in favour of Leave? Ready to embrace UKIP, that’s where.
The fact that the racists of UKIP – if they get even a whiff of power – can only ever turn Britain into an economic disaster zone is unlikely to make any difference. Vast swathes of the English electorate, as well as the Welsh, have been convinced that immigration is at the root of all their ills. There may be pogroms yet.
I said English and Welsh, because what the Leave campaigners seem to have forgotten too, in their gadarene rush to rid themselves of the European bogeyman, is the existential risk to the United Kingdom itself. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted resoundingly to Remain. Why should the citizens of either be forced out of Europe because of their historic links with England? Those links had, in any event, become desperately fragile. The United Kingdom may just be about to fall asunder.
That is, if anyone can agree on the process itself. It is generally accepted at this stage that the Referendum has no concrete legal standing. The decision to leave the EU will ultimately have to be made by Parliament. And what if the motion is put to the house and defeated? The process of leaving will anyway take years. And it can only start after the British government has triggered Article 50, the mechanism whereby states begin to withdraw from the EU. The Brexiters seem not to have had a plan as to how that might work.
I am an internationalist. For all its manifest flaws, I believe that the EU has been a hugely positive, productive, liberalising force in Irish and in British affairs. For our part, were it not for the EU, and its courts and its commitment to human rights, we would likely still be stuck back in the ‘50s, a monocultural society dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, where homosexual acts would still be illegal. Our involvement in Europe transformed and modernised Ireland in a way for which we should be enormously grateful. And it helped to radically change Northern Ireland too. But the EU has been good for the UK in general, in a thousand ways, opening up not just British culture but cultures across the continent, allowing people to work abroad, and promoting ideals of tolerance, co-operation, freedom of movement and freedom of thought.
The old adage holds good: ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer. To reduce something as complex as the relationship between the UK and Europe to a Remain or Leave question in a referendum was, and is, idiotic. And the result of the vote almost certainly represents an act of self-harm, the full repercussions of which will only reveal themselves with time.
What has been uncovered also is a deep fissure in British society on the basis of age. People between 18 and 35 voted resoundingly to stay in Europe. Along with citizens of Scotland and Northern Ireland – and, for that matter London, where Remain also prevailed – their views are being stamped on, though they are clearly the ones who will have to live with the consequences longest.
Is there anyone out there who can begin to make sense of this mess? We will see. “Brexit means Brexit,” one Unionist politician gloated on RTÉ. “We don’t do re-runs.” Where referendums are concerned, I have always thought that this was a stupid argument. What the referendum result represents, in the first instance, is nothing more than a snapshot. It may have been that the people wanted to give David Cameron and his government a kick up the arse; that the lies of one shower or another swayed them; or that people were voting on all sorts of things peripheral to the issue itself.
So what is so wrong with a re-run? Given all that people know now, a few weeks after the result was announced, would they vote differently? Are they not entitled to have their say again, once the terms of Britain’s proposed exit have been hammered out? And what if it does mean the dissolution of the United Kingdom, as it once was called? Are they not entitled to want to reverse that?
The most important thing for us to do, here in the Republic, is to ensure that the damage to the inhabitants of this patch – particularly North of the border – is minimised. We can and should also show our solidarity with, and support for, the musicians and young people – across Britain and in the North – the majority of whom did not and do not want to leave Europe and hope that a way back can be found by them. And finally, we can make the case within Europe for a new reckoning on equality, fairness and inclusion. Sadly, it is rather more likely, for the forseeable future at least, that – spurred by the menace behind Brexit – the trolls will flourish.