|Statue depicting, possibly, how UK voters feel, Copenhagen|
Somehow, as I type this, it has become the 7th of June. I started thinking about this during my month’s paternity leave over December and January, getting down a few thousand words at odd times of the night, at the kitchen table during the softly lit mornings when it felt mid-afternoon, or evening, or who knows when. My initial ideas for an arc about the importance of Europe quickly proved too big, too unwieldy for the time I had and so were abandoned.
Then I tried again, sometime when things got a little easier, when we found the new rhythm of life. That was better thought out, more realistic, but I lost interest. Fundamentally I didn’t really have an argument and was largely swiping concepts from a Radio 4 documentary I’d heard while driving through Lincolnshire one Tuesday morning, the tempo of my prose as flat as the landscape.
And so, here I am. The 7th of June. A Tuesday evening, the summer downpour leaving the garden feeling fresh and cool after the afternoon’s clamminess, the breeze comes through the French windows of the kitchen. Part of my brain is contemplating the pre-six o’clock start for paid work tomorrow morning. The rest of it is worrying about the 23rd of June.
The referendum on our membership of the European Union is probably the most important decision we have faced in a generation and I seem unable to properly plug myself into what’s happening. When I wrote far reaching, well researched, coherently argued pieces around the 2010 and 2015 elections I was watching an hour or more of news and devouring the BBC and Guardian websites every day as a minimum. At the moment, I seem barely able to remember there’s a choice for the nation to make.
Of course, I have my excuse: My son is almost six months old and while it is significantly easier than it was, there are scarcely any free moments in a day. And that’s okay. I would much rather spend half an hour playing with him, seeing his gummy grin as I enter a room, than contemplating the disaster looming.
But this is important, vitally so, and not just for me and the immediate future, but for him and for years to come. Once we are out there will be no way back in. In my overly privileged bubble it all seems obvious, but around the country I fear those who want to leave are gaining traction. The Remain campaign is a shambles so every right thinking person needs to wade in. I want to help, but how am I supposed to find the time and the head space to write for our futures?
And there we go, it’s now the 15th of June and I got little further than the above. I may not have been writing, but I did manage to pay closer attention. Depressingly, the outcome seems worse than I thought. I think the Leave campaign is going to just sneak a victory. More interestingly, I think I have, finally, begun to understand why.
Both sides have tried to distil a hugely complex system into simplistic messages leaving factually incorrect sound-bites and we all spend time picking holes in each others’ supposed facts rather than addressing the fundamental motivation. Which is easy enough to do. Let’s debunk some of the arguments for Leave:
We all know that the £350m Boris Johnson so maturely carved into metal with a chainsaw and is emblazoned on the side of the Leave campaign’s bus is, at best, misleading. The reality is that the majority of that money either never leaves the country or is reinvested back here as subsidiaries for industries such as farming or green energy or infrastructure projects such as introducing broadband to Cornwall, developing a number of centres for innovation at universities around the country, subsidising regional graduate employment programmes, rejuvenating the port of Sunderland, and hundreds of other projects.
This leaves some £160million being invested into Europe each week. Some of that will be used to support the EU’s infrastructure, but much of it will be used to invest into similar development projects for the poorer member states of the club. By developing these countries, by stimulating Slovakia’s economy, for example, it improves the wealth, well-being and living standards of the population enabling them to buy more things off us (leaving aside the services we may sell to them in order to deliver on their projects). The EU is a self-generating marketplace, an internal wealth machine.
Unlike some of the claims being made by Leave the EU does not prevent us from trading with anyone else. Instead it enables it. Yes, it prioritises internal European trade, in the same way that significant import tariffs to the USA encourage citizens to Buy American (not that it works very well, as many a Donald Trump support will tell you), but it also facilitates sensible trading deals with the rest of the world. By acting as a whole we have a greater buying/selling power that supports our ability to trade with India, China, Brazil and America. Any suggestion that operating alone we will somehow gain preferential treatment and overhaul the fact that Europe is by far our biggest market in a short space of time is hopeful at best and wilfully ignorant at worst. The majority of the world’s significant trading countries have already indicated they would prefer to work with Britain as part of the EU, not as a separate entity. Still, we could always sell financial services to North Korea in exchange for a tractor that breaks down after ten minutes.
Perhaps that’s who our natural bedfellows should be, after all one of the claims by Leave is that we need to regain our sovereignty. We still have it, indeed thanks to the Maastricht treaty we have more ability to opt out of EU legislation than any other member. Sure, our activities are governed, to an extent, by things like the Human Rights Act (which incidentally was originally written by British lawyers), and our laws cannot directly contradict EU legislation, but then this applies for members of the United Nations as well. There are international laws which, if you don’t want to have to play by yourself in the corner, countries willingly sign up to, otherwise you’re completely on the outside of international society. The question, for me, no-one seems to have an answer for is which rules do we want contravene? What different laws do we want? Removal of the right for trial by jury? Get rid of carbon emissions targets? Allow our food to be pumped full or hormones like all that cheap Argentinean beef everyone seems exited to have flown into the country by the end of the month?
The EU is not undemocratic, dictatorial or wholly populated by self-serving bureaucrats (well, no more than any other civil service, anyway). The council of the EU comprises the President, elected by the other members of the council who are the heads of state, elected by us, the people. The parliament of the EU which holds the council to account, negotiates and sets the laws are directly elected through proportional representation in each country. That’s us. We vote them in. The bureaucracy that manages the whole thing, writes papers, produces the legislation is, like any other country in the world, unelected, yes.
Oh, but the immigration is out of control. We need to gain control of our own borders. The country is full, infrastructure and resources are over-stretched. House prices are out of control. Well, yes and no.
The reason you can’t get an appointment at your GP or your kids may be struggling to secure school places is nothing to do with immigration, but policies of austerity over the last six years and a longer term failure to invest adequately in health, education and social care systems. Wherever you live, if the EU immigrant population is removed then your GP practice does not magically become a wait-free experience. Either you will see no difference at all because there still aren’t enough GPs working long enough or non-core hours to meet with demand or, if your practice is overwhelmingly attended by EU immigrants, then it will probably close because they’re funded by population head count and suddenly it isn’t viable. Same with your school. The biggest pressure on the NHS is an increasingly elderly population; on schools it is the congestion of young people into concentrated areas producing birth rate spikes and the system isn’t nimble enough to respond in time. The same argument applies to any area of infrastructure you’re feeling the pinch on. Net EU immigration to the UK has a peak annual figure of 180,000, a significant number, sure, but they’re not all living in your street.
So then we’re back to whether that £160 million a week would make all the difference. Reinvest it in the NHS say Johnson and Gove as though we were voting for them and they had any right whatsoever to be making promises about what a post-EU membership Britain might look like. Okay, so £160 million a week is in the region of £8 billion a year. A lot of cash, but the annual budget of the government is £772 billion. That’s 1%. Given that the total deficit for NHS Trusts in England alone was £2.3 billion in the last financial year, this would just about haul healthcare out the red temporarily, but is barely a drop in the ocean of what’s required to reconfigure the whole service and create the sort of utopia yearned for.
Like benefits, there is no system of positive discrimination that allows EU immigrants to jump ahead of you in the queue for council housing. There just isn’t enough available and hasn’t been since Right to Buy was introduced in the eighties and councils prevented from using the revenue to build more homes. The government we elected in 2015 has pledged to extend this policy, forcing housing associations to sell their properties. This shoves people into the private rental sector which, in London and many other metropolitan areas, is out of control. Again, this is nothing to do with the EU, but the fact that we have a completely deregulated market with landlords able to charge what they want and a soaring demand due to there not being any council housing and young people being unable to afford their own homes. This doesn’t happen in the rest of Europe. It is a uniquely British problem.
Astronomical house prices, especially in London and the South East, are not the fault of immigration. They can’t be both unemployed, living on benefits, coming over here to take the menial jobs the local population wishes they were above, and also be able to afford paying over the odds for property. Again, this is a lack of regulation, a national mindset whereby we see our properties as our pension or inheritance cash for our children and grandchildren (too many elderly people rattling around large family homes), and foreign money laundering into premium London properties which then sit empty. Again, not the EU’s fault: Saudi Princes, Russian oligarchs and Chinese shell companies are not part of the club.
Illegal immigration and non-EU immigration are entirely different issues. Those applying for visas get assessed in the system we would have even if we left the EU. Those arriving illegally are fleeing a terrible life elsewhere and are coming to Europe for its stability and economic prosperity. Okay, yes we can blame the EU for those last two. But the problem is not confined to Britain. We’re not even the biggest recipient of refugees. Sweden takes more immigrants than any other EU state. We don’t change any of this is we leave the EU. We can change it by ending the civil war in Syria, by ending a police that routinely uses torture in Eritrea, by making sure homosexuals don’t have to fear for their lives in Uganda, and anywhere else that people are treated unfairly and life is horrible. You end the refugee crisis by making the world a better place not by washing your hands of it.
But this is a great country, or it was. On our own, we were so much better. Let’s be that way again. When we joined the EEC in the 1970s the country was on its knees. Industry already in terminal decline, Thatcher just put it out of its misery. There’d been a three day working week because we couldn’t keep the lights on. That posing led to the breaking up of the unions and the sale of the utilities companies. The reason the French state provider is now one of our biggest providers of electricity and gas is because we voluntarily sold it to them. Interest rates running at 22% (put that in your mortgage calculator and see whether you can afford it). Sterling devalued. A bail-out from the IMF that’s no different from the economic aid being given to Greece. We deserved it, why don’t the Greeks?
If not the point we joined the EEC, then further back? Maybe, if we’re really honest the only thing we’ve ever been great at is our military forces occupying countries significantly behind us in terms of technological developments, raping their land for raw materials, shipping it back to the UK’s early industrial manufacturing sites (which were hardly the pinnacle of workers’ rights) and then forcibly selling back to the colonies at inflated prices. Oddly enough I don’t think the rest of the world is going to let us do that again.
(And even if they did, it only ever benefited a small, extremely rich elite, not the masses).
Unfortunately Leave’s arguments may be utterly flawed, but Remain is no less sensationalist. A complete financial apocalypse is not going to happen on the 24th of June, although we almost certainly will slide towards a deep rooted and extremely harmful recession which could cost the livelihoods of a whole generation of twenty-somethings. World War Three is not around the corner, but it will play into the hands of an increasingly aggressive Russia and I wouldn’t fancy taking on the world’s third largest standing army (not counting the millions of trained reservists) with an aircraft carrier that has no compatible planes and a military force the current government has a habit of serving redundancy notices on while they’re in combat zones.
By giving just the negatives it fails to paint a picture as to the benefits of staying in Europe and nor does it address the fundamental reason as to why so many people are desperate to leave. Yes, some people are xenophobic. Yes, Boris Johnson only wants to because for some reason he sees it as a road to being Prime Minister and appears content to fiddle Nero-like while a fucked up country burns around him. Yes, some businesses seem to think there are economic benefits to it, but presumably their margins will be found in screwing profit from the workforce; the boss of JCB is not Joseph Rowntree.
But why do ordinary people want to leave?
I think for many it is fear of and a sense of being lost in the twenty-first century.
A lot of the economic arguments are about how corporations are run from abroad, for the benefit of shareholders not the local community that generate the profits. They’re about an absence of job security. It’s about an anonymous high street, about a shopping centre full of big brands somehow equating to rejuvenation even if you don’t have any money to spend. It’s about call centres in far flung corners of the world, businesses moving their workforce to cheaper locations. How we don’t make anything anymore, how work is an abstract concept rather than a satisfying labour. It’s a lack of social mobility. It’s about people seething at the fundamental unfairness of being stuck somewhere with no hope and even less prospects. And it’s about being scared that things are going to be even worse for the next generation.
It’s about thinking that things used to better, when we were young, when we were carefree, because, you know, they always are when all you have to worry about is how much pocket money you’re getting, whether that girl who sits at the back of the bus fancies you, where the next pint comes from, whether you want chips on the way home or a kebab. That isn’t the world changing, it’s just the shock of growing up and realising life as an adult is hard.
But none-the-less, I get all that. I understand why people in areas that have been trodden on by successive generations of politicians, who have always been promised something better are really, really pissed off that better has yet to materialise. At times it feels like the last politicians to make a substantive change to people’s lives for the better was the Atlee Labour government, doesn’t it, and that was a long time ago. I’m sorry, though, none of that is the fault of the EU. That’s a globalised economy and in the USA, in Australia, in Japan, it’s no different. It’s an adherence to a neo-liberal form of capitalism, as advocated by Johnson, Gove and Farage, that works for markets which need to make exponentially increasing profits at the expense of human satisfaction.
Leaving the EU won’t change that.
The sort of trade agreements being talked about optimistically by Leave are more of the same. The rhetoric is about releasing the shackles on the market, letting capitalism drive down prices (maybe) with no consideration for personal safety, job security or the environment.
Lord knows the EU isn’t free from big business. It bends too easily to pressure from lobbyists (but also often fights off the worst of them) and entering into discussions about TTIP was one of the worst ideas since trying to capture the Suez canal or introducing university fees. But the EU does offer subsidiaries for businesses, it will support key infrastructure, it does help the market to help the people and that’s a far cry from what’s being proposed.
To fix all of this, to make it better, you don’t need a new European Union you need a new consensual global system. Crazy as it seems I think we stand a better chance of doing that, no matter how almost impossible, as a part of something bigger than going it alone.
And failing that how about we just concentrate of saving the environment? Not much point having a world if it’s uninhabitable. So, if Britain wants to be great again it needs a new USP not a new set of trading agreements. We need to take leadership and develop true innovations in green technology, ordinary technology, financial services which suggest a different way of doing things is possible, a society which focuses on the benefits of all not just a few in the right place with the right friends. And once we’ve done that for ourselves, let’s lead the way in Europe and from there, who knows where we could end up.
Today, for thousands around the country, life is shit. It’s miserable, skint and we pine for something abstractly better. We long for a past that never quite was, but you can never go back. You just have to go forward, like cultural identities we continually evolve and a notion of Britishness is not the same today as it was when we were kids, and that’s okay. That’s just life. It’s hard, I know it is, and it’s scary and it’s easier to yell and vent all that pent up frustration against something which doesn’t really understand why you’re so upset. I know all that, and it doesn’t necessarily make leaving the wrong thing to do, I just think most people are doing it for the wrong reasons.
Leave is, essentially, offering more of the same and a sliver of hope that it will, somehow, be better than it currently is. What we should be doing is hoping for better, having the system in place to deliver better and in the meantime having the security of the status quo. Change is incremental not a lighting flash and to change we must Remain.