Ideas UK referendum

I’ve thought about voting Leave once. I’m not doing it again

A post for Brits: Are you thinking of voting to leave the EU? For years author Mike Robbins wanted a chance to do the same. But he’s have been thinking hard.

Published on 15 June 2016 at 14:01

As I write this (on June 12), the latest polls show the voters swinging backwards and forwards on Brexit. The BBC quotes a poll from June 10 that puts Brexiteers at 55%. Other polls disagree but right now it looks like Leave.

If anyone wants to know why so many Brits are itching to get out of the EU, they needn’t bother looking at the spurious tripe and specious data shoved out by the Remain and Leave campaigns. No-one believes any of it. The real reason Brexit has so much support can be gleaned from a statement made by actress Emma Thompson at the Berlin Film Festival back in February. She was quoted in The Guardian as saying that Britain was “a tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled misery-laden grey old island”, that she “just felt European”. These are the elite attitudes that are driving British, and especially English, votes into the Brexit camp, and reading that was nearly enough to make me vote “Leave” as well. Many voters wish the liberal middle class would just take themselves off to Tuscany, then, if that’s where they’d rather be. It’s part of the same “culture wars” that are leading voters towards Trump in the US.

But this is dangerous. As Owen Jones said in a typically intelligent piece, also in The Guardian, on June 10: “When presented with a vote on the status quo, it is no surprise that those with the least stake in it vote to abandon it... Threats of economic Armageddon resonate little with people living in communities that feel ignored, marginalised and belittled.” The Leave campaign, says Jones, is much the same as Trump’s, “powerful vested interests ...masquerading as the praetorian guard of an anti-establishment insurgency.” He is so right. If some of the polls are to be believed, on June 23 millions of Brits will traipse into polling booths to vote against their own interests. In voting against their perceived enemies in the ‘liberal’ elite, people will be voting for their realenemies. And reading statements like Emma Thompson’s one understands, with horrible clarity, how this has happened.

I voted to stay in Europe in 1975. Later I regretted it. For years I wanted a chance to vote the other way. But I shan’t. I am voting to stay in the EU, and I think my fellow-Brits should too. Some will have to swallow some bile to do so. This post explains why I think they should.

Newsletter in English

Let’s start with the last referendum, 42 years ago.

Another country

The past is another country and in 1975, Britain certainly was. I worked in a bookshop and when I prepared an invoice, I did it on an ancient Remington manual typewriter, keeping carbons for the file. When I sold a book, I handwrote the amount on a paper till roll; the till itself was made of wood and the tray slid out with a pleasant kerching. Much of the country’s heat and light was still from coal – even the trains had run on it less than 10 years before, and the stations were blackened by smoke. A long coal strike in early 1974, combined with the 1973 oil crisis, had damaged the economy badly. Inflation was, by modern standards, very high, and in June, the month of the referendum, it went over 26%. I remember that in early 1975 my wages were raised from £845 a year to £1,495, to reflect this. It was not unusual.

Yet if the country was different, the politics of the referendum were oddly similar. Labour had returned to power in February 1974 in the wake of the miners’ strike, and had pledged to renegotiate the terms under which Britain had entered the European Economic Community the year before. This was popular, as the previous Tory government had broken a 1970 promise to hold a referendum before entry. Labour’s renegotiation did not, as I recall, change the terms that much, but Prime Minister Harold Wilson advocated a Yes (remain) vote; at the same time, however, he allowed members of his government to campaign on either side, to prevent a disastrous split in his party. Does this sound familiar?

But the quality of the debate was much higher. There are no giants like Barbara Castle and Denis Healey around today. And some of the issues, too, were different. Many Leave voters were incensed by the way we seemed to have turned our back on the Commonwealth by joining Europe; we had, they said, kicked our allies in teeth for the sake of our enemies. The war in Europe had ended barely 30 years earlier; it was not yet really history, and feelings still ran high. There was also a huge economic risk in the reduction of tariff barriers with Europe. Britain was still a major industrial power, but was slipping badly; its goods were declining in quality. French and German cars, for example, were better assembled – British ones could be maddeningly unreliable. Some wondered if British industry would survive the competition. It was a pertinent point; over the course of 1975, unemployment rose from 3.3% to 5.1%.

I was aware of this and especially of the Commonwealth dimension, and I seem to remember I thought quite hard, or as hard as I ever did back then (I was 18). But in the end I voted to stay in the EEC, at least partly because I felt that most European countries were more modern and democratic, and would be a good influence on us.

A grandiose dream?

It was a long time before I changed my mind. I can remember being angered when all our petrol pumps had to be converted to litres. British people didn’t use these to measure fuel consumption, and still don’t, so this was pointless (though it would likely not happen now). Then I started to feel very uneasy after Maastricht, which seemed to presage a European state. Such a superstate would have been an artificial creation that would eventually have cracked apart, almost certainly with violence. It was a grandiose and vainglorious notion dreamed up by a rootless elite who felt more comfortable with each other than with their own people.

And yet the driving dream behind the EU – peace and stability in Europe, after centuries of war – was always a noble one; something that many in the UK never really understood. To many Brits, Maastricht was as much an attempt to destroy us as 1940 had been. Many have seen the EU as little more than a French plot against Britain. I never approved of “ever-closer union”. But I never saw it as the evil plot that many of my parents’ generation did. So I felt torn about Europe.

What fixed my opinions was two and a half years in Brussels. I went there as a long-term consultant on an EU-funded programme for technical assistance to the former Soviet Union. This programme did some good things but pushed an economic model that most Russians probably did not want. I also did not feel comfortable in Brussels. The city itself is pleasant enough, and Belgium in general deserves a better press. Yet I always sensed an attitude to foreigners; it was not quite hostility, more a quiet non-acceptance. Also, it rained a lot. And the EU establishment depressed me – the bureaucrats detached from civil and diplomatic services who saw Brussels as a step up, or in some cases as a refuge; the ‘stagiaires’, or interns, screaming acronyms at each other in noisy pubs; the huge self-important buildings, especially the Berlaymont, then wrapped in sheeting for asbestos removal – grandiosity again; and the endless paperwork before anything got done. Then in 2001 I got a chance to move to Rome, as a consultant to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. I jumped at it, and will never forget emerging into the bright Roman sunshine and giving thanks. For the next decade I remained a firm Brexiteer.

I’m not any more. For one thing, Cameron’s renegotiation exempted the UK from “ever-closer union” – but this was not, in truth, a big concession; the European super-state has been dead in the water for some time. No-one ever really wanted it, and the Euro crises of recent years, culminating in the bitter humiliation of Greece, have killed it off for good. But there are several other reasons for my re-think.

Movement of people

The first reason why I’ve changed my mind is the enormous exchange of population between Britain and the rest of the EU. It can’t be reversed. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are nearly 800,000 people of Polish descent in Britain now (not all because of the EU; in the early 1950s there were already some 150,000, most of whom had arrived during or after the war). There are also hundreds of thousands of French nationals in England – the French think it is up to 400,000, mostly in London. According to the 2011 Census, there were about 2.68 million people in Britain who had been born elsewhere in the EU. Meanwhile about 1.3 million UK nationals live elsewhere in the EU – about half in Spain, to which many retire.

Even if free movement is abrogated completely, it is inconceivable that all these people could or should be repatriated; it would involve forced mass migrations last seen in Europe in 1945-46 (and those were not something one would wish to repeat). Moreover our economy would collapse. So the immigration argument for Brexit holds little water; yes, we have had a huge net inward migration from the EU, but those people aren’t going anywhere. They will have to be given residence permits. It is not even clear that the UK could prevent further free movement, as it might be a condition of continued access to the EU single market. Attempting to restrict it could also threaten the Irish peace process, a threat that Ireland does not deserve – and a reminder that this referendum isn’t just about us.

There is one immigration-related argument with which I have some sympathy. People are understandably unimpressed that Romanians and Bulgars with no links to Britain can move there, whereas an architect in Brisbane or a database designer in Hyderabad cannot, even if they have family in Britain. But Brexit would not change this. First, Australia and India do not permit free movement of UK citizens, and it’s unlikely the UK would make a non-reciprocal deal. Second, as stated above, to keep access to EU markets we’ll need to accept free movement to some extent. In that context, no UK government is likely to permit freer entry of Commonwealth citizens as well. In any case, the right-wingers who will be in charge after Brexit are unlikely to be sympathetic to any non-white immigration. More family members from the subcontinent? Forget it.

So much for immigration. It is something many British people care about deeply, having seen their communities, their high streets and their workplaces change with lightning speed, and without their consent. But Brexit will do little to change any of this.

European security

Meanwhile, a grave argument against Brexit is security and stability. The Leave camp insists that this is a matter for NATO, not the EU, and that it is therefore irrelevant. It is not.

First, NATO has historically been driven by the US, and today it is probably more interested in Asia. As I write this, the State Department’s attention is probably more on the Spratly Islands than Ukraine.

A British exit will send a dangerous message to Moscow

This will be even more dangerous if Britain’s departure leads to an unravelling of the EU in general, as some (including, it is said, Angela Merkel) believe it might. Besides exposing Europe to external threats, it could reverse the peace within Europe that it has enjoyed for most of my lifetime. Not because France and Germany would be at each other’s throats (they wouldn’t), but because the EU has been the driver for a wholesale growth in democracy in Europe. It is easy to forget that in 1975, Spain was still under the dictatorship of General Franco – he was to die that November – and Greece and Portugal had thrown off authoritarian regimes only the previous year. The prospect of EU membership was an incentive for these countries to adopt democratic regimes and they have retained them. Even more important, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact regimes in 1989-91 left a vacuum that could easily have been filled by the type of semi-fascist governments that dominated the region before 1939. Again, the prospect of EU membership came, for many in the east, to symbolise the drive for modernity and an escape from the past.

Do we wish to reverse that? The far right has reappeared in Europe and the EU is a bulwark against it. Again, it is a reminder of something that many in Britain either forget, or willfully ignore: This referendum is not just about us.

A democratic deficit?

We also need to stop believing that leaving the EU will be some sort of liberation from an oppressive bureaucracy. Let’s start with the supposed democratic deficit in Brussels.

To be sure, the European Commission is not properly elected and sometimes seems unaccountable. But in theory, at least, its members must be approved by the European Parliament. Moreover, while the Parliament can’t dismiss individual Commissioners once they’re in office, itcan dismiss the Commission as a whole. So when one Commissioner, Édith Cresson, refused to resign in January 1999 following a corruption scandal, the Parliament threatened to throw out the entire Commission (which resigned en massebefore that could happen).

The European Parliament is properly elected under a proportional system. The Westminster Parliament is not. The current UK government has the votes of only 24% of the electorate – and only about 33% of the votes actually cast. “Out” voters may want to ponder the fact that UKIP got one Westminster seat for its 3.9 million votes, while the Tories got a seat for every 44,000 votes and Labour one seat per 34,000 votes. Worse, the government drawn from this “elected” parliament has complete authority; as long as it retains a majority, it will not be dismissed, and is virtually unaccountable. Moreover it can do pretty much what it likes; there is an unelected Lords that can delay but not prevent its legislation, and a Head of State who by convention does neither. Britain is, in fact, marginal for being called a democracy, and anyone wishing to address the “democratic deficit” had best start at home.

An independent, influential UK?

The last serious argument against Brexit, for me, is the global dimension.The Brexit camp would have you believe that, out of Europe, Britain could pick up its pre-EU threads and continue to influence world events at the top table. This is deluded.

First, the EU as a bloc is a bigger and more important entity than the UK. Assuming it survives Brexit, the great powers will talk to it or to its prime mover, Germany – not to us. Ah, the Leave campaign will say, but we’re still the world’s fifth largest economy, a nuclear power and a member of the UN Security Council. They’ll talk to us as well.

Let’s examine this.

One of the first things that will happen if Britain votes “Leave” is that the Scottish Nationalists will attempt to hold a new independence referendum. This won’t automatically happen, as the SNP lost its majority in the Scottish Parliament in May 2016. However, it is only two seats short, and if any one of the other parties were to support it in this matter, it could prevail. Even if they did not do so, it is not hard to imagine one or two renegades from the other parties supporting the motion. The 2014 vote against independence, though clear, was not a landslide. A Leave vote in the UK as a whole would probably make many Scots think again – especially if, as seems likely, Scotland votes Remain.

There would be two consequences. First, the UK would be diminished. Only about 10% of the population would be lost, but the permanence of the UK as an entity would be cast into doubt. Second, the UK nuclear deterrent would have to leave its current base at Faslane. This would raise the cost of renewing Trident, already put at about £100 billion (though this is a lifetime cost; the initial outlay would be smaller). Given the economic uncertainty that would follow Brexit, the government of the truncated UK would have to think hard about this – and about the political cost of imposing a nuclear submarine base on some new location, possibly Plymouth.

A smaller country, without a nuclear deterrent. The case for retaining our permanent seat on the UN Security Council, already shaky, might now be untenable – especially as other member states could argue that the UK was no longer the country to which the seat was allocated in 1945 (a thin argument, but it will be used). Out of Europe. Off the Security Council. No longer of significance in Washington. Let us hope Argentina does not then invade the Falklands, for there will be few to support us if they do.

What are we left with, after Brexit? At home, we will have an inbuilt Conservative majority at Westminster. It isn’t hard to see why right-wing interests are so keen on Brexit. Boris Johnson or (more likely) Michael Gove would become Prime Minister, and the loss of the Scottish electorate and the rigged electoral system will keep him there. Social welfare will come to an end and the NHS will be put out to tender.

Millions of ordinary English voters, affronted by remarks such as Emma Thompson’s, will march into the booths on the 23rd and mark the cross for Leave, thinking they are voting against the likes of her. But they won’t be. They will be voting for their real enemies. Meanwhile, a rump country, diminished in the world, will watch its remaining influence slip away and realize, too late, that the Leave vote has brought the long post-imperial twilight to an end.

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