I want my country back…..

On the bus in Manchester this week: two NHS nurses in their late fifties, lamenting the state of the NHS, the queues and waiting lists, the missed appointments, the cost of interpreters, the lack of funding, the state of Britain and what it all means for their grandchildren. They are both going to vote leave because they are sick of Westminster politicians – as one said to the other “It can’t be worse if we leave….”

For once in their lives, every vote counts: for too long, mainstream parties have courted the floating voters and ignored the alienated and the dispossessed. For once in their lives, they have a chance to strike back against the Westminster élite … and who can blame them for taking the opportunity? Their voices have not been heard, except through UKIP. Blair’s failure to deliver Proportional Representation was an historic mistake: two Manchester nurses unrepresented, and millions more like them.

Blair could have improved democracy, built social housing, invested in state schools, in care for the elderly and in doctors and nurses. The Labour Party ignored the needs of their core vote – alienated them and lost them. Data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that for “working-age adults, inequality has continued to rise (albeit gently) across much of the working-age spectrum.”[1]

With a strong political consensus in Westminster, all the established parties support remaining in Europe: it is not surprising that alienated voters turned to UKIP and the Leave Campaign. They want their voices to be heard; they want some of the safety nets and certainties of the past; they want decent public services, they want their children to be able to find affordable housing. In short: they want their country back.

The repeated failure of mainstream parties to deliver – despite the UK’s oil-fuelled boom, and the imposition of austerity in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis – has created a very large group of disaffected voters. Immigration and the EU, so often the convenient scapegoat for British politicians when they failed to deliver on their extravagant election promises, have been successfully used to create the campaign for Brexit.

I want my country back – but it is not credibly possible to blame the European Union: for the UK governments’ failure to build houses, for the Academies, for privatisation, for the excesses of banks and  bailouts, for the underfunding of the NHS, for the failure to provide adequate care for the elderly, for the Iraq war, for the Syrian refugees. None of this can be laid at the door of the EU. The fault lies in Westminster and Whitehall.

The Brexit campaigners are not a government in waiting – they do not have a credible alternative to membership of the EU. They accuse the Government and the Remain campaigners of scare-mongering because they point to the dangers of leaving. But the Brexit campaigners have not told us what their plan is. Indeed it is difficult to believe that such a diverse group could agree on an alternative strategy.

Boris has said that VoteLeave is not an “alternative government”, although his Vote Leave colleague, employment minister Priti Patel, asserts that they are “campaigning to take back control of our country and our government and unleash that control back to the British public.” [2]

It would take much greater constitutional change than merely leaving the EU to achieve that and to give back control to the public. That is NOT on offer.  Although claiming not to be an alternative government, VoteLeave did on 15th June commit to end free movement of labour, curb the power of EU courts and conclude a UK-EU free trade deal by May 2020.  Even if they could deliver that, it is, according to them, at least four years away. more

The VoteLeave group is not a government in waiting. They agree only that they want to leave Europe and that Britain will prosper if we leave. If there is a vote for Brexit, the leave coalition will fragment. They are unable to tell us which form of trade deal they envisage negotiating and in reality it is hard to see how the UK could have the benefits of free trade into the single market without accepting the principle of free movement of labour. The Brexiters make much of how much the EU needs access to our market. Maybe some countries do, but we’ll be negotiating with all 27 – and they do not all benefit from trade with us. Divorce settlements are generally bloody affairs.

Essentially the British electorate is being invited to jump off a cliff on little more than a wing and prayer.

The Brexit campaign is technically populist.[3] Leading politicians, some of them in the Cabinet, are seeking to secure the support of ordinary people by promising to give them what they want and by attacking the establishment – of which, of course, they are a part.

There has been a great deal of mudslinging in this political circus – a great deal more heat than light. However, on major issues of principle, there have been some significant shifts of position. For example, Boris Johnson quoted at length in the Telegraph on 25 October 2013 [4]

I’m probably about the only politician I know of who is actually willing to stand up and say that he’s pro-immigration.”

“I believe that when talented people have something to offer a society and a community they should be given the benefit of the doubt,” Mr Johnson added.

Some backbenchers have voiced the opinion that Mr Johnson is the only Conservative capable of combating the threat to the Tories from the UK Independence Party.

However, the [former] Mayor’s views on migration could distance him from backbenchers if he was to ever attempt to become the Conservative leader.

Earlier this year, Mr Johnson called for a one-off amnesty for illegal immigrants.

He challenged the Coalition’s opposition to an amnesty and said that illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay after 12 years in Britain.

Mr Johnson said on Wednesday: “I’m not going to resile from or going to dismiss the notion that you’ve got to be tough on illegal immigration.

“Frankly it was, if I may so, the active decision of the Labour government to turn a complete blind eye that undermined immigration in the eyes of many people in this country.

“And you should think about that because it did serious social damage.”

He added: “I go back in a pedantic way to this distinction between legal and illegal immigration. It is vital that we do make that distinction. I’m probably about the only politician I know of who is actually willing to stand up and say that he’s pro-immigration.”

People are entitled to change their view – but they need to, and should be able to, explain why. The big risk is that if the public votes for Brexit, and IF a large and immediate reduction in immigration does not occur then the disillusioned, alienated and marginalised will move further to the right.

I am of the same view about the EU as Churchill was of democracy – I agree with him about democracy too – unless there is an assuredly better prospect on offer then take Hillaire Belloc’s advice:

“…always keep a hold of nurse
For fear of finding something worse.”

There is much to criticise in the EU – the gravy train and a lack of democratic accountability – as there is in Westminster. We fail to hold our MEPs and MPs to account – too much power rests with the national governments in the Council of Ministers – but it is our Government Ministers who exercise the national veto on our behalf in the Council of Ministers.

I also think that the EU is too pro-Big Business – so are many of out Westminster politicians – but consider this from Anthony Hilton in the Evening Standard in February:

“I once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union.
‘That’s easy,’ he replied. ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.” [5]

Many have argued that there is a lack of facts in this campaign, that they only tell us what they want us to know. There is a lack of facts in all campaigns but, ironically, there have been more in this one than in most. The facts are readily available on the BBC website[6] – lots of them on the economic impacts, jobs, the cost of EU membership[7] (£276m with the rebate and £161m nett, less than 0.5% of GDP), immigration (more arrive from outside the EU than within) and sovereignty – we are out of the single currency, the Schengen Agreement and we have a veto on foreign and defence policy.  Competition policy and enlargement of the single market to the east were all strategies championed by Britain. A single market requires a level playing field of regulation – unfortunately, the Brexit campaigners make no distinction between regulations and laws. We hear much about the red tape that will be removed if we leave the EU, but those businesses which want to sell in Europe will need to comply and Britain will no longer be part of determining those regulations. There will be lots of scope for the creation of non-tariff barriers against UK business interests.

The EU offers a safety net of workers’ rights, health and safety legislation, clean beaches, and air and water directives. The anti-EU campaigners have been less than specific about which red tape they would remove and very free to offer increased funds for farm subsidies and the NHS – popular, populist promises but with plenty of wiggle room. Becoming internationally competitive by cutting labour costs may be the biggest advantage of leaving the EU for employers but it will bad news for many of those who may be misled into voting for Brexit on Thursday. Further austerity will hit their living standards and public services.

The dismissal of experts is a classic populist strategy: facts and informed opinion do matter. One of the legacies of this campaign is likely to be a rejection of informed opinion in favour of stirring up and spreading prejudice. The BBC’s impartiality has benefited the Brexiters who have had airtime to repeat their claims – the £350m a week claim has stuck because it has so often been repeated, even though it is not true. When the Remain campaign calls it for what it is they, are accused of mudslinging; when they point out the dangers of a Brexit they are accused of spreading fear.

There are a few obscure facts of which have emerged during the campaign

  • The EU is encouraging new “sharing economy” firms such as Uber. Katainen, the commission’s vice-president, said on June 2nd “We want to keep up, and keep Europe as open as the US for new innovative business models, at the same time as addressing the negative effects.”
  • 800,000 people in Britain are employed in the car industry
  • In March 2015 it was a European Court of Justice ruling that annulled an ECB document which would have resulted in Euro clearing moving from London to within the Eurozone. The ECJ does not always rule against our best interests.

The facts are complicated – if you want to know how often Britain has lost out in votes in the EU – been on the losing side – take a look at the Full Fact website – the government has been on the losing side 2% of the time since 1999; government ministers were on the winning side 95% of the time. The balance has shifted in recent years. The detail matters.[8]

Britain cannot leave Europe: we can leave the EU, but we cannot leave Europe. If our leaving further weakens Europe – and we are seeing the rise of right-wing and populist parties across the continent – then we will find ourselves with increasingly unstable neighbours; as so often in the past, we shall find ourselves sucked into European conflicts. Trump has said that he would “certainly look at” pulling the United States out of the international security alliance, because it is “obsolete” and “is costing us a fortune.”[9] The destruction of the EU is not in our interest.

As The Economist has pointed out

“If Britain leaves the EU, it is likely to end up poorer, less open, and less innovative. Far from reclaiming its global outlook, it will become less influential and more parochial. And without Britain, all of Europe would be worse off.   .. [and to maintain access to the single market] .. Britain will have to observe EU regulations, contribute to the budget and accept the free movement of labour – the very things that Leave says it must avoid.” [10]

I want my country back too. It will not be achieved by leaving the EU – quite the contrary –  if the populists win the referendum we’ll be moving in the other direction.

I should have turned to those two nurses and pointed out that things can get worse – on Thursday things could get worse, be careful what you wish for.

There is a rising star in the Conservative Party – she is from north of the border. She had the last word for the remain campaign in last night’s debate, listen to what Ruth Davidson had to say

+++++++++++++

Caroline Ashley is a friend who has written eloquently about why she is voting remain, read what she has to say.

There are some useful links in her piece if you want to read more

[1] http://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/comms/R107.pdf p.36

[2] June 1st

[3] http://www.breitbart.com/london/2016/06/21/analysts-referendum-boost-populism/

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/10404421/Boris-I-am-the-only-British-politician-who-will-admit-to-being-pro-immigration.html

[5] http://indy100.independent.co.uk/article/this-terrifying-rupert-murdoch-quote-is-possibly-the-best-reason-to-stay-in-the-eu-yet–WyMaFTE890x

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36027205

[7] The Telegraph printed the facts in February – it is less than the budget for the Home Office http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/eureferendum/12176663/EU-Facts-how-much-does-Britain-pay-to-the-EU-budget.html and also https://fullfact.org/europe/our-eu-membership-fee-55-million/

[8] https://fullfact.org/europe/eu-facts-behind-claims-uk-influence/

[9] http://www.factcheck.org/2016/05/whats-trumps-position-on-nato/

[10] The Economic June 18th 2016 p. 13

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Harold Goodwin