‘Taking control’ means taking responsibility, too

Okay, first of all, no more petitions to re-run the referendum. Please. It confirms everything that the Brexit campaign has said about people who wanted to stay in the EU. People voted. It’s done. The anger at over-turning it or demanding a do-over would be so enormous that Brexit would probably not only win again but would win again with an even higher margin. And the level of rage we would see in response could honestly be so great as to be dangerous.

That’s not to say that down the line there is not room for the debate to be continued. Given that people voted for Brexit for a myriad of different reasons, with different goals and different visions of post-Brexit Britain, it seems reasonable to say that once a specific deal has been reached, that it could be put to the public, to give people a chance to have their say again. And, of course, going into a general election, parties can campaign on whatever platform they like. But right now, the vote was to leave the EU. Everyone must respect and, to use an irksome political phrase, be seen to respect it.

Okay, now I’m done with all that. Please also stop with the accusations that we, the people who supported Remain, are labelling everyone who voted for Brexit and thick or racist or both and are terrible mean bigoted people, when we raise our concerns about the severity of the impact of Brexit, or the strengthening of the far right. This simplistic and dismissive response to people’s very real concerns about the impact of Brexit, the way the campaign was fought, and the way decisions of this importance can be sensibly made is getting extremely tedious. Democracy doesn’t mean that the minority has to shut up and respecting people’s right to have an opinion doesn’t mean you have to pretend to agree with it.

First, the racism bit. I am extremely bored with the inane statements about how not all leave voters are racist. No-one is saying this. There could are lots of sensible arguments on both sides of the EU debate (I have written about some of them myself). But that isn’t the campaign that the Leave strategists chose to run. What I have heard expressed is: ‘The Brexit campaign won because of racism.’ That is a very different statement from ‘every Brexit voter is racist.’ And it’s true. Of course it’s true. We know from polling, interviews, and conversations with people in real life, that huge numbers of people voted for Brexit because they basically dislike foreigners. I know people who did so. It is a senseless, patronising waste of everyone’s time to pretend that this isn’t the case, and to pretend the campaign we saw was not fuelled by racism and xenophobia. By the end, they might as well have sent out leaflets saying: “If you want a Turk for a neighbour, vote Remain.” It is not helpful to pretend not to see it. It wasn’t only Nigel Farage’s poster. There was a banner from Leave.EU which claimed we were in danger of an Orlando-style shooting if we voted to Remain. There was that map sent out claiming Turkey will join the EU, with the only countries labelled on the map being Syria and Iraq (let me know if you can think of any non-racist reason for that. I am stumped). And who can forget that Nigel Farage genuinely warned of middle-eastern men coming to assault European women. Let’s not pretend that comments like that are accidental. We know they are very old, tried and tested techniques to stir up racism and xenophobia without taking responsibility for it, for political ends.

So calm down and have a beer, because no-one is calling you, personally, a racist. I’m sure you’re a lovely person. But so what? I am sure when the Conservatives ran their infamous ‘if you want a [slur] for a neighbour, vote Labour’ campaign, there were people who voted Conservative for other reasons. Perhaps they disliked the Labour candidate. Perhaps they didn’t agree with Labour’s economic policies. Perhaps some just thought Peter Griffiths would do a good job as MP for Smethwick. Do you see the flaw in this reasoning now?

Ultimately it doesn’t much matter if your motivation for putting those people into power was racist or not. No-one cares about what is going on inside your heart. No-one cares if you like them or want to hang out with them or want to have sex with them. People care if your actions impact their lives, their rights, their safety. Once the far right is out of their box it matters very little who opened the box, or why they did it. All the Brexit voters are not racist but what does that matter; the point is that huge numbers of Brexit voters are comfortable with racism, and prioritised something else over keeping racism out of politics; huge numbers of Brexit voters were happy to vote in such a way as to give a mandate to racists, and to reward a racist campaign, thereby encouraging more of the same. That, I’m afraid, is a factual reality of what you voted for. You can be offended by it as a lovely non-racist Brexit voter but that’s tough. If you get into bed with Nigel Farage don’t be surprised if people look at you funny when you’re doing the walk of shame in the morning without your knickers on.

It is at this point that I expect to hear the familiar cries of either ‘but unity!’, or, ‘I’m bored of this now; get over it.’ With regard to the first, well, you might want unity but that’s just tough for the time being. I’m afraid you can’t run or support that kind of campaign and expect everyone to be the same towards you in the immediate aftermath. Actions have consequences. Telling everyone else to shut up and stop boring you by discussing the consequences of your actions is not cuddly and warm; it’s actually quite unpleasant. And make no mistake, you can tell people to shut up in whatever polite, superior language you want – don’t be divisive, calm down, let’s not be hysterical, let’s have a bit of positivity – but that’s still what you’re doing.

But the second cry, the cry to ‘move on, get over it, stop discussing it’ is perhaps the most troubling. Look. I absolutely believe that most voters knew what they were voting for, looked at all the facts, and voted carefully for what they believed was best. I am also aware that many voters feel lied to, ill-equipped to make the choice, or exploited, and am happy to accept that this is not their fault. What I am struggling to be patient about, however, is the huge groups of people who insist with furious indignation that they analysed all the information, and are absolutely qualified to make this decision, but are now puzzled to find that people are still discussing it, and think it’s hilarious that so many people are so angry, scared, and upset by what they’ve done. There is no nice way to say this: if you think we should all just forget about it now, like a football match that our side lost and your side won, then guess what – you did not understand the ramifications of your vote. If you didn’t realise there would be consequences for the pound, the wider economy could be plunged into recession, we would end up with – and this is just off the top of my head – effectively no Prime Minister, potentially the breakup of the United Kingdom and the end of the peace process in Northern Ireland, then I’m afraid however intelligent you are and however carefully you considered the information available to you, it’s really, really, not unreasonable for people to question whether we, any of us, are qualified to make such a momentous decision by the means of a referendum.

Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not like I think I’m any better informed or smarter than you. I’m not. None of us has time to read all the legislation that comes out of the European Parliament and analyse the impact on domestic and foreign policy; none of us has time to speak to world leaders and diplomats and economists around the world to pull together detailed insights into what impact Brexit would have on world markets and borders and the likelihood of peace; none of us has time to read up on the full-scale impact of Brexit for workers rights or human rights, women’s equality or trans equality (I mention trans equality in particular because the Trans Equality Legal Initiative has produced a briefing on it, which you can access here); none of us has time to calculate by how much food prices will go up and what impact that will have on child poverty and malnutrition; none of us has time to consider all the different Brexit models, establish how all of the above and many, many more things would be impacted by each one. That’s not because we are ignorant or thick, it’s because we have day jobs, families, partners, friends, and we are not subject experts. I know, those pesky experts again. But you see, just because experts sometimes get things wrong, it doesn’t mean that the whole concept of knowledge or expertise is null and void. I get that it isn’t our fault we were asked the question. But it’s not as if no-one told us that the consequences of Brexit would be disastrous – it’s not even as if only David Cameron and politicians told us so. Everyone told us so. World leaders. Economists. Business leaders. Scientists. Academics. Doctors. And contrary to the line we keep hearing, it’s not about class. Plenty of homeowners in leafy suburbs voted for Brexit; plenty of people in low or no income voted to Remain. Immigrant-free seaside towns or leafy suburbia can be just as much of a ‘bubble’ as London, you know. This is nothing to do with ordinary people who voted Remain thinking we know best. You are the ones, the Brexiters, who thought you knew best. You knew there was no plan, no answer to any of the above – how could there be, when all the people campaigning for Brexit can’t even agree on what model they want instead – and you still thought you knew best.

That is why people are pissed off. That is why people are struggling to be polite through your sneering and mocking people’s concerns. That is why people are still talking about Brexit. I’m not pissed off at people who can see the impact on the markets already and see that they may have made a mistake. I’m not pissed off at the people who were confused about why we were asked the question in the first place – the people who have spent the last several months asking, pleading, begging, for the facts and the information they needed. It’s the having the cake and eating it attitude that pisses me off. That attitude comes from the politicians who are supposed to be steering the ship and have no plan, but, yes, also, I’m afraid, from those voters who thought they knew better than the experts, and now find the inevitable chaos that has ensured boring, funny, or someone else’s problem. The Brexit camp wanted to take control – but when it’s time to take responsibility, none of them can be found.

EU referendum: Beyond liberal economics

The official campaigns from both sides of the EU referendum debate are both so exasperating I frequently find myself wishing I could vote against both of them.

Neither campaign deserves my vote, and yet, it is an historic question, which is bigger than both official campaigns. It is bigger than David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn; certainly bigger than Nigel Farage or George Galloway.

While the official campaign representatives haggle over how best to reduce immigration and cut benefits, the rest of the serious, complex issues that are affected by EU membership never seem to get a look in. It isn’t surprising; this EU referendum debate, and the reason we are having it in the first place, is all down to the fight in the UK between different types of conservative; between economic liberals and social conservatives. No wonder the spectrum of debate is narrow. 

Take Lord Stuart Rose’s comments to the parliamentary select committee last week. Lord Rose asserted that Brexit (specifically, an end to the ‘free movement of people’ between EU member states) would lead to fewer people on the Labour market, and, consequentially, higher wages. Will Straw, the Labour Executive Director of Britain Stronger In Europe campaign, was asked about this on the Daily Politics and replied that the evidence shows free movement of people is ‘good for the economy overall,’ while Conservative Danny Finkelstein said that higher wages aren’t always a good thing as they could increase unemployment. It’s not just the In campaign. Look at the way Boris Johnson, on the Andrew Marr Show, dismissed concerns about job losses as a result of Brexit, by saying that leaving will be good for the economy overall.

What if you simply want to know more about the impact of staying or leaving on your wages or on your job? You’d be forgiven for getting the distinct impression that this debate isn’t about you; that both sides consider you to be at best an annoying irrelevance.

These things are gold dust for the likes of Ukip, a party which loves to play the ‘anti-establishment’ card whenever it can. Without so much as having to lift a finger over workers rights or wages, Suzanne Evans, Louise Bours and Douglas Carswell get opportunity after opportunity to frame themselves as the only people in the room with any concern for low waged workers. (Or, I should say, for some low waged workers. They do not even pretend to care about all workers.)

With the arguments we keep hearing both for and against EU membership so rooted in classical liberal economics, it is unsurprising to see that Jeremy Corbyn flat out refuses to say he is “on the same side” of the debate as David Cameron. He is right, of course. He is on neither side in the fight between the two kinds of Tory. He is neither a classical liberal conservative nor a social conservative. His cautious, carefully-weighed answer to the question of which ‘side he is on’ may be intellectually honest, and to many it will be admirable, but unfortunately it leaves a gaping hole in the referendum debate which Alan Johnson cannot fill by himself. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party needs to be asking – and, ideally, answering – the question: what are the modern left-wing arguments for and against the EU project, and how do we weigh them up? 

The Labour party should not be scared of debating this openly. No-one can accuse them of ‘splits’ or ‘division’ when the Tories are practically plotting a leadership coup over the issue. And it’s not like the Labour party is taking the opportunity to criticise the Tories for being divided on Europe – they’ve had a bat and ball handed to them and they’re choosing not to even attempt to swing a hit; the least they could do is take the opportunity to work up a modern, social democratic vision of the EU while the government is busy fighting among themselves.

Besides, for all the critical talk of ‘splits’ in the Tory party over Europe, I find it rather refreshing to see politicians drop the ridiculous pretence for once that everyone in one party agrees on every single thing all the time; that they must all stick to the lines they are given, even if it doesn’t fly, even if it makes no earthly sense, even if everyone in the room knows full well that they do not believe it because they have said so in the past, on camera. 

And here lies one of the big risks for the In campaign: that the freedom to speak authentically puts the Brexit campaign at an advantage. Brexit is mostly made up of people who have spent years, decades, perhaps their whole political lives pondering the issue of the EU. While sometimes coming off as slightly weird and monomaniacal, it is evident from listening to these people that they care deeply about the subject, and know the arguments inside out. Michael Gove, Owen Patterson, Douglas Carswell, David Davis, John Redwood (although not, quite noticeably, Boris Johnson): these men give the distinct impression that there are very, very few questions about the EU that a journalist could throw at them which they haven’t spent hours considering for many hours over the course of their lives, while boiling an egg, waiting for petrol, sitting on the toilet, and basically any time their minds wander.

In contrast, many of those who are part of the In campaign are striving to stay on message, and repeat the approved lines. Many of them – not all, but many – appear as if they have not given the subject much profound or careful thought at all; in some cases because they never imagined Brexit to be on the cards in any serious way, and in some cases because they simply don’t see it as that important.

While sticking to a clear, agreed message might give the In campaign a more professional image, especially to the usual analysts, who tend to work in communications, media, or both, and therefore view everything through the lens of whether it looks like ‘good communications’ or not, we only have to look to the successes of people like Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump to see that this isn’t always a winning strategy these days. To many undecided voters, David Cameron and his colleagues risk sounding stilted, unenthused, arrogant, and – perhaps the biggest risk to the In campaign – elitist. The narrative that the ‘establishment’ wants us to stay in the EU and ‘the ordinary people’ want us to leave is helped further by stories about vital documents being withheld from pro-Brexit ministers or John Longworth being suspended from the British Chamber of Commerce over pro-Brexit comments. (Both these things may of course be entirely reasonable, but they feed into a perception about the fairness of the debate.)

And this is where Jeremy Corbyn’s voice is so sorely missed for many in the EU referendum debate – and where it is conspicuous by its absence. His ‘USP’ as we all know is his authenticity and his tendency to formulate policy positions on the basis of evidence, and by listening to the people affected, rather than choosing them as part of a communications strategy or ideological narrative. It is a strength, but it is also a great challenge to pursue intellectual honesty – and not just in politics. When you follow evidence and logic on complex issues you often end up with a conclusion that displeases those with much more power than yourself, or, a conclusion that does not fit under any labels, and it is therefore not saleable.

This is the problem with the EU debate. The right-wing case for the EU (that it facilitates globalisation in the modern world and is good for business in general) is saleable. The right-wing case against the EU (that it brings red tape and regulation, and allows too much immigration or the ‘wrong sort’ of immigration) is saleable. The left-wing case for leaving (that it is a “capitalist club,” which dilutes and overrides parliamentary sovereignty) is saleable. And yet, even though the EU is a social democratic project in so many ways – indeed, this is why so many right-wingers want out – it seems to be beyond the wit of the Labour party to articulate a saleable, authentic, progressive case for staying in the EU. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, with a large mandate, a philosophical thinker with an authentic voice who has credibility among left-wingers, seems the ideal person for the task. We may ask ourselves why he seems so cautious about stepping up to it? 

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