The REFERENDUM – WHAT DO I KNOW?
Are you sitting comfortably, children? Then I’ll begin. All of you have, I am well aware, been eagerly awaiting definitive guidance on what to do about the referendum concerning our continued membership of the European Union next Thursday. Now is the time to grant you that guidance. There is still long enough for you to process it and take from it all that you need. So here it is. I shall not be adding to it and I shall not be taking questions. Anyone who wants to argue with any of it is naturally free to do so, but I shall not be engaging with such arguments. I am not in the business of explaining further to anyone who is incapable of paying attention. And I cannot be shamed or browbeaten into changing my analysis. But I warn you that the guidance is comprehensive and lengthy [3,000 words] and you will need to persevere if you have the interest.
The first thing you should know is exactly what the screenwriter William Goldman famously reported about Hollywood in his memoir of that town and that industry. It is so important and so fundamental that he wrote it in capitals and I shall do the same: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING [Adventures in the Screen Trade 1983 p39]. This is as true about politics in general as it is about movies in general, and it is as particularly true about the political future of Great Britain, in or out of the EU, as it is about Hollywood. So, as Goldman did, I shall write it again. NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.
Of course a great many people think that they know rather a lot, even that they know everything, but they are deluded. Pay them no heed. If you needed examples of how little they know about the political future, just ask them if, twelve months ago, they anticipated that Jeremy Corbyn would be leader of the Labour Party (he secured his nomination as a candidate a year ago yesterday) or that Donald Trump would be the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States (he announced his candidature on this date in 2015). You would think, with these lollapaloozas of examples, such people would foreswear gravely informing us of what will happen. But they never learn, even though they all knew for a fact a year ago that either Manchester City or Chelsea would win the football premier league.
I am fond of quoting Harold Wilson’s maxim, so you may have noticed me quoting it before: “a week in politics is a long time”. It is true so often that what was the case on Wednesday is out of all consideration on Tuesday that you would think no one could possibly have the temerity to pontificate about what will happen in six months or two years or at the 2020 election. But they do so pontificate and with such hubristic self-satisfaction that you wonder how they get their pullovers over their heads. Well, pay no attention. Nobody knows what will happen. We could all be dead, even before the conference season is due to begin.
Now, many people – politicians, columnists, lay people and haunters of social media – have been telling us for weeks what “will” happen if we leave the EU. Some – fewer, but more than enough – have been telling us what “will” happen if we stay in the EU. By the laws of averages and probability, some of these statements will turn out to be reasonably correct, but only because shooting a lot of bullets greatly increases the chances of someone being hit, not because the speculators actually knew what would happen; because, as I say, NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.
In the Remain campaign, this presumption to prophesy the future if the Leave campaign prevails is characterised, reasonably enough and not only by the Leave campaign, as “scare-mongering”. It does seem very clearly designed to frighten people into voting to stay. Is it any wonder that such tactics do not commend themselves to everyone? As the opinion polls have suggested that the result may be becoming uncomfortably close, the Remain campaign have perhaps lost a little nerve or tried to soften their tactic. Thus the interview with the Prime Minister in The Observer (on Sunday last) generated the main headline: “Cameron: Brexit may put pensions at risk”. We are, then, entitled to assume simultaneously that leaving may NOT put pensions at risk. Would the newspaper have granted such a half-hearted headline to Boris Johnson and indeed would he have wanted it?
For most of the time, the Remain campaign have heavily leaned, dismayingly but not unexpectedly, on the doom scenario. They do it because it is easy and it does not require detailed exposition. From the first attempts by Harold Macmillan to secure British entry to what was then called the Common Market, pro-EU politicians have presented an unwavering attitude to the British electorate: “You just leave it to us; don’t you worry your pretty little head about all this European stuff; we know best”. That has been the demeanour of Edward Heath, Harold Wilson, Jeremy Thorpe, Roy Jenkins, John Smith, John Major, Tony Blair, Nick Clegg, Gordon Brown and now David Cameron. What the present Remain campaign has conspicuously lacked is any kind of exposition of how being in the EU is a good thing. There has been almost nothing constructive and upbeat about the campaign; the only message has been: stick with us or the sky will fall.
Actually, there has been an exception to this negativity. Some of you will grumble that yes, of course I WOULD say this; but I play it as I see it and this is what I see. The only British politician who has talked about the actual advantages of being in the EU is Jeremy Corbyn. He has also talked, sensibility, judiciously and in a measured way, about the disadvantages of being in the EU as he sees them. He has taken a mature and – as people say these days – nuanced line on the referendum. But this has been nothing like sufficient for the drama queens in the Tory Party and the media. Though Corbyn has made dozens of carefully worded speeches about the referendum, only three of them have been made public to my knowledge. Reporting on those three has concentrated on the notion, spread by Lynton Crosby for the Tories and by his allies on the Labour backbenches, that Corbyn is “lukewarm” on the EU, that he is a “closet leaver” and that Labour supporters don’t know where the Party stands. The conventional wisdom becomes that Corbyn has “failed to get his message across”. Well, as Marshall McLuhan proclaimed half a century ago, “the medium is the message”. If the media get in the way of the message because reporters and commentators are only interested in who’s up and who’s down (presently in the Tory Party), the politicians cannot be blamed if they find that they are shouting into a void. Crosby knows this very well; it is all part of his plan to try to shift the blame onto Labour if Cameron loses the referendum.
Apart from eschewing the scare-mongering and name-calling that his fellow Remain campaigners have daily indulged, Corbyn is (as far as I am aware) unique in presenting himself not as a politician only concerned with the British interest or even – and few enough of the strong advocates do this – as one properly ‘communautaire’ (which is to say concerned with the European interest), but as a citizen of the world. Corbyn wants to reform the EU so that it protects the planet and its working millions. He is not in this racket to ensure that all the bankers and asset-strippers and speculators stay in London. Jean Monnet, the founding father of the Common Market, and the Treaty of Rome, which enshrined the articles that set up the market, were dedicated to the self-interest of the nations that made up one of the two wealthiest continents in the world. In that way, the EU was inward- rather than outward-looking. It has continued to be so. That is why it has been found so wanting when challenged by the great crises of the 21st century: the ailing economies of the weakest EU members and the plight of millions of refugees. European governments have fretted that their domestic interests will suffer and this has led them to make destructive and stupid decisions. This stupidity and destructiveness is evidently endemic. The EU is in dire need of comprehensive reform; it may be beyond saving.
What is more, consensus politics is in retreat, not only in Europe but right across the world, as witnessed by the astonishing successes of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries in the States. It is perfectly conceivable that within four or five years there will be highly ideological governments of both right and left in several of the EU member states, not least in France and Germany. Moreover, it has been suggested with some credibility that the spread of Islam across France has been so vigorous that within thirty years there could be a Muslim administration in Paris. Certainly, the possibility of supporters of Sharia law having the means of raising objection to liberal social measures – let alone any say in the framing of EU regulation – gives pause and makes the aspiration of Turkey to join the EU something to be resisted. One can foresee a Europe ahead that Britain might wish it had left when it had the chance.
For me, the issue for Britain and the world this year that is far more important than the future of the EU is the future of the United Nations. A new Secretary-General must be appointed soon and the courage and nature of that appointee will have a profound impact on the geo-political future of the planet. The UN is desperately in need of reconfiguration; its charter, now 71 years old, is no longer fit for purpose. I’d like Corbyn to bend his mind to that issue. I’d like to hear his proposals.
The UN’s methodology has remained fixed and consistent through its history. By contrast, the Common Market/EU has changed radically. Some of its attempts to change have been tested against public opinion, as will happen in Britain next Thursday. But the grave warnings that this referendum will be irrevocable and “a once-in-a-lifetime decision” are not borne out by precedent.
In 2005, the French President, Jacques Chirac, called a referendum on the European Constitution. Three days later, the Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, held a similar referendum. Both the French and the Dutch voted against ratification. The EU reintroduced the greater part of the new constitution renamed as the Treaty of Lisbon which was passed by the member governments without offering it to any electorates, save that the Irish constitution required ratification. In the referendum duly held in June 2008, the Irish voted against the Treaty. The EU tinkered with the treaty and then the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, asked the electorate to vote again 16 months after the rejection. This time the ratification was successful. In another part of the forest, the Scottish voted against independence in September 2014, but already there is strong pressure for a repeat of the referendum. So remember the venerable saying about politics: “never say never”.
Irrevocability is another of the ways in the Remain campaign paint a frightening picture of chaos and collapse if Britain leaves the EU. Some of those who will play some part in Britain’s future relations with Europe have added to the doom scenario. The European Council President, Donald Tusk, reckoned the other day that Britain leaving the EU “could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation in its entirety”. Oh, for Pete’s sake. An hysteric should not be appointed to a position of power. Donald Tusk is as undisciplined a prophet as Donald Trump. The world needs grown-up, judicious, steady leaders, not fantasists.
We should give no credence to these prophesies of doom. It is true that we are entering new territory. Nobody has been here before. But the new dispensation, whether in or out, has still to be managed by real-life politicians who stand to gain nothing from making difficulties where none needs exist. The sun will still rise and wages will still have to be paid. If Britain leaves the EU, accommodations will be made, threats will be rescinded and a new relationship with Europe will be constructed. It will not be the world of the world; it may, however, be the end of David Cameron.
The argument is put that leaving will make for uncertainty and that business hates uncertainty. Business will have to pull itself together. The rest of us hate those businesses that avoid their share of taxation. Perhaps leaving the EU will expedite measures to enforce tax collection.
In any case, political uncertainty is fertile ground, testing the mettle of politicians and public alike. Only a fool – there are plenty of those – would predict who will occupy no 10 Downing Street at Christmas. I hope it will be Corbyn. Certainly, if the electorate vote to leave, the prospect of a Corbyn government unfettered by EU regulation would be a bracing one. We must hope that the Labour Party will allow him to rise to the occasion.
I might be positively attracted to the Leave campaign were it not peopled – without exception as far as I can see – by chancers and shysters of the kind one would resist accompanying up a single floor in a lift. Its leaders have made outrageous claims about the present cost of belonging to the EU and about what they would do with the cash that wouldn’t actually be saved, including suddenly presenting themselves as the saviours of the NHS, the break-up of which institution many of them have hitherto espoused.
And lately they have been playing their trump – or do I mean Trump? – card, the Farage joker: immigration. This is the main reason given for the perceived support for leaving the EU among Labour supporters. The issue is also frequently mentioned in the internal party report by Jon Cruddas, Labour’s Future: Why Labour lost in 2015 and how it can win again. Cruddas repeatedly observes that Labour has lost those voters whom he calls “socially conservative”, identifying UKIP as the main beneficiary. What he doesn’t explain is what he thinks Labour should do about immigration. If the implication is that Labour should metamorphose into a racist party like UKIP, I suggest that it will cease to be the Labour Party.
There are many arguments that can be advanced concerning immigration that are very different from anything Nigel Farage would say. To begin with, we are continually told that unemployment is coming down, that the number in work is higher than it has ever been. Evidently, then, the present level of immigration is not having the effect that is often claimed: that “they’re taking our jobs”. More convincing is the argument that the NHS is overstretched and that there is a housing shortage. However, immigration does not cause these problems even if it exacerbates them, and there is irony in the unarguable fact that both the NHS and house-building are unusually dependent on immigrant workers to keep going.
The nettle that Labour need to grasp about immigration is that its extent is an urban myth. Ask people what percentage of the population in their area was born abroad and even those who welcome multiculturalism pitch the number far higher than it actually is. The most recent official figures are 18 months old. The percentage of the UK population that is foreign-born was then put at 13.1. But of course the spread is very varied. Immigration in London runs at almost 40%. In Wales, where UKIP gained seats for the first time this year, the percentage is 2.3. And in the North-East, it’s only 1.6, yet that region has one of the highest rates of UKIP support (nearly as high as Wales), which suggests that unjustified fear is a significant factor in opposition to immigration; by contrast the place whether UKIP gets its lowest support, save for Scotland, is London.
Labour has to point this out to its supporters who bend their ears about being “swamped”, in Margaret Thatcher’s unlovely term. I have found when canvassing that a fruitful line to take, when told that immigration is a “problem”, is to ask how specifically it proves a problem for that householder. Vanishingly few in fact have anything to offer other than prejudicial generalities. It isn’t rocket science to shame them very gently and respectfully out of their more unjustified claims, because few want to commit to actually stating to your face that they just don’t like Poles or West Indians or Pakistanis. And if they do, then frankly UKIP is welcome to them.
Let us remember also that it is not so many weeks since the British public, appalled at images of drowned children, were pressurising the government to accept many more refugees than it had hitherto permitted. Again, on the doorsteps, it helps to remind sceptics that the countries from which millions are now fleeing are the very same that our planes have bombed: Syria, Libya, Afghanistan. We have a moral duty that voters gainsay only if they are prepared to admit that narrow self-interest is their only concern.
When it comes down to it, I think that it is only proper to bring moral considerations to the way one votes. Self-interest is not always a simple procedure. More often, benefit comes over the longer term by taking consideration of everyone’s interests, not just one’s own. I would have voted gladly to remain in the EU if I thought that anyone additional to Jeremy Corbyn presented a cogent and humanitarian reason to do so. But I have been profoundly dismayed at the antics of the last few weeks. I shall not make a final decision until actually inside the voting booth. But, as I said in my letter to The Guardian the other day, I incline strongly to spoiling my ballot paper. This is a very different gesture from abstaining and staying at home. I am sorely tempted to write across my ballot paper: “Each campaign as vile and destructive as the other – neither deserves my vote”. Many more people at the count would look at my ballot paper than any just marked with a cross. It is a legitimate exercise of one’s civic duty.