We’re on a dangerous road.
One of the big rules about this referendum is that you mustn’t do ‘scaremongering’. Expressing fears, or potential worst-case scenarios is something that’s been implicitly declared unacceptable by both sides. It’s kind of like Godwin’s Law: you mention Hitler in an online debate, you lose. And everyone laughs at you. It’s an especially good way for people to avoid reading and considering what you’ve said, and whether your reference was warranted.
I’m not sure what the rule would be called as it explicitly pertains to the EU Referendum. The Cameron-Farage Regulation, perhaps?
Thing is, though, while this rule, whatever it’s called, does serve the purpose of getting everyone to think a little about what they’re claiming, there are some pretty damn scary things about the Remain/Leave question itself and the way in which the argument is now being conducted. (I won’t dignify it by calling it a ‘debate’ – it hasn’t been that for weeks, if not months).
I’ve spent too long complying with that rule and trying not to mention it. But Internet rules be damned, it’s too important to leave unsaid, so I’m going to mention it anyway.
The tone of the argument has become more adversarial, not only between Brexiters and Remainers but between Brexiters and the rest of the world. For all they claim to be friends of Europe – “Love Europe; hate the EU!” – I’ve seen many cheerfully predicting the domino collapse of the EU should we leave. They say that’ll be a great thing, because the EU is evil. But that betrays the irrationality of their perspective on the EU (‘evil’, FFS?); and it’s going to hurt European economies – yes, even our nice, ‘safe’, Brexited economy – and potentially drag the world back into a further financial crisis, just as it’s starting – starting – to recover from the last one. Make no mistake: whether we’re in or out, the wider economic effects of a full EU breakdown would be ruinous to us.
But more than all this talk of economics, Brexit, I’m in no doubt, is a symptom of rising nationalism across Europe and around the world. This is turn is a symptom of hardship. We’ve had some hard times. Some of us have felt it more keenly than others, but we’ve all seen the results of our financial problems and the various austerity measures that have been implemented to try to ease them. Cuts have been savage; we’ve lost services and facilities we’d grown used to. Major institutions, such as the NHS, are clearly struggling, and are in some cases threatened entirely.
We’re angry, and we’re scared. And why not?
But you know what happens when people are angry and scared? Quite reasonably, they look for reassuring solutions. Less reasonably, they tend to settle on the easy ones. We like to be able to apportion blame when things go wrong. And it’s a sad fact that we tend to load that blame onto the weakest targets we can find. And it only takes a few exploitative politicians, or news magnates, to focus and legitimise that.
And this is what we’re seeing. As the strain on our NHS and other services is being attributed to immigration, or interference from foreigners in Europe, rather than being accepted as a consequence of the financial difficulties we’ve endured. It’s hard to lash out at a complex and extensive financial system, because most of us have no idea why and how it went wrong or how it should be fixed. Hell, most of us have no idea whether it’s already been fixed – it might take years for any corrective action to become visible to us, the public.
No, it’s easier to listen to Farage; to Johnson; to Gove – all extremely wealthy men, all in positions of considerable public responsibility – while they point the finger at the EU and at immigrants and blame ‘the outsider’, the ‘others’, for all our problems. And to a public drip-fed thirty years of media mistrust of those very same ‘others’, of course it’s going to seem to make sense.
Don’t blame our bankers. Don’t blame our politicians. Certainly don’t blame our rich and privileged political classes. Blame them. Blame the Europeans. Blame their bureacrats; blame their workers; blame their students. It’s all their fault.
And if we succumb to this, we take the first steps on a very dark road indeed.
You’re not allowed to mention Hitler in Internet debate. You lose if you do.
I think we lose if we don’t.
I think we all lose if we don’t know exactly what we’re doing and take steps to avoid it.
Britain clearly can’t let go of the war. I think it caused a far deeper trauma in our collective social psyche than we like to admit. Sure, we won the war – but look at us since. While Europe has got on with things, we’ve remained obsessed with our fight for freedom, our fight to defend ourselves against an all-conquering tyranny; plucky Britain standing alone fending off everything the Third Reich could throw at us… Our newspapers can’t even let an England/Germany football game go without harking back to the war.
The war did something to us. Something even deeper than the damage and death it caused at the time. It’s made us standoffish, defensive in attitude. The ‘Blitz Spirit’ was what we needed then, and it served us well then – but we’ve brought it with us into a post-war world, and we can’t seem to let it go. At its best it makes us strong, resilient, practical and pragmatic. But at its worst it leads us to see ourselves as besieged when in fact we’re anything but.
And the cold irony is that it’s this very spirit that’s leading us to start making the very same mistakes that drove Europe into war in the first place.
Germany in the 1930s was suffering. After losing a vast proportion of its younger population in the First World War, it was hurt, humiliated, and financially crippled. And it was being forced to pay reparations for the damage it had inflicted during that war. “Fair enough,” you might say. “Vae victis,” you might say. And that’s all well and good from an objective point of view. But the German people didn’t have an objective point of view because they were the ones who were suffering.
Nationalism increased sharply, as it always does in times of hardship, and it didn’t take much for a exploitative young politician to manoeuvre himself into a position of absolute power. And then, being one of those disenfranchised, hard-done-to people himself, he set about ‘reclaiming Germany’s greatness’.
Now look around. In Russia, Putin dreams of the Soviet Empire and seeks to reestablish it, in power if not necessarily in size. He’s an unrepentent KGB man, who thinks Russia surrendered when the USSR fell. His support amongst the Russian public is immense.
In the USA, Trump appeals to hard-done-to, disenfranchised Americans and promises, quite explicitly, to ‘Make American Great Again’. America’s already great – yet people rush to his flag. What they FEEL doesn’t tally with what IS. They think America’s ruined; in decline. They don’t bother to look at whether that same recent slowdown has affected the entire developed world. And Trump has no real policies.
In France, Marine Le Pen commands support that could quite easily lead to a Frexit whether or not we, the UK, vote to leave the EU (though our leaving would without doubt make it vastly more likely, potentially beginning that domino effect). She wants to make France great again – ignoring the objective fact that France is a powerful, prosperous nation. There have been hard financial times, and the French are feeling it, just as we are.
And we’re all looking for scapegoats. It’s human nature. We all want to find the source of the problem and remove it. For now, Brexiters are talking about closing the borders; exerting more control over who comes here, who’s allowed to stay and who we keep out. These in themselves aren’t unreasonable things to want to discuss – as Brexiters are keen to point out. “We’re only angry because no-one listens to our concerns!”
Well, maybe. But immigration is primarily an administrative matter. The state of the national finances – and therefore its public services – simply isn’t down to migration, and we must, must guard against the urge to turn our anger, however justifiable it may be in general, onto a relatively small group of people. (And again, it’s worth pointing out that EU citizens – the ONE group we would lock out via Brexit – are net contributors to our economy and therefore help support those services.)
You’re not allowed to mention Hitler. But we must, because he didn’t start out as The Most Evil Man In History. He started out as a radical politician saying things that ordinary German people – and quite a few ordinary British people, don’t forget! – actually wanted to hear. He sympathised with their hardships. He gave them a scapegoat; someone to blame. Someone easy to target. He gave them simple solutions that didn’t involve challenging their own country’s decisions or their own society’s way of doing things. He told them who was at fault and he told them that he could deal with it.
Then, with their (admittedly uninformed and unquestioning) blessing, he started ‘dealing with it’.
It was only afterwards, as Europe’s smoke was clearing, that the full horror of how he was dealing with it became clear. And the nations of the world recoiled, and we all condemned him and his evil regime, and we all said, as we’ve said ever since:
“Never Again. Never Forget.”
That’s an easy principle to hold to when the sun shines and the harvest is good and nothing comes along to challenge our values. When living is easy we can have all the civilised principles we can eat.
But today, things aren’t so good. And that’s when it’s most critically important that we cling, hard, to those principles, because our nature will do everything to make us abandon them.
We cannot afford to go even a short way down that road; much aside from the fact that the further down it we go the harder we’ll find it to turn around.
The global financial crash was the start. Rising nationalism was the first symptom. Brexit/Frexit/any other -exit you like is a sign of the developing disease. We have a chance now either to take the medicine we need, or to let the disease run its course.
That disease is terminal. It’s just a matter of how long it takes and how many people it kills.
Our exit from the EU will serve no credible economic purpose, and in fact is likely to cause significant damage as we search for independent trade deals with countries that’re primarily focused on the three major world markets, the USA, China and the EU. It will not solve our immigration ‘problem’. It will not shore up our NHS. It won’t feed and clothe and house our poor. It certainly won’t contribute to addressing climate change.
But it would certainly represent a green light to nationalist elements, legitimise scapegoating, and set us on a road we swore we would always guard against travelling. Once we accept, as a nation, the idea that our country’s problems can be loaded on or another group of ordinary citizens, we’re lost.
Is this scaremongering? No: ‘-mongering’ means making or manufacturing, and I don’t need to that: I’m already scared for us.
From here is stuff I initially put in at the top, but realised I was just repeating things I’ve said before, and distracting from my main point. I think I was trying to temper the ‘obvious scaremongering’ reaction you’ve probably had already. That said, I still think some of this stuff’s worth repeating, so I’ve just moved it to the bottom here.
Obviously there are concerns about the economy. The fact that just about every credible source of analysis, from global trade organisations to economic forecasters to credit agencies to multinational businesses are saying Brexit will hurt our economy and make us considerably worse off. The only disagreement is over magnitude: how hard the average person in the street will feel the crunch.
There are legitimate concerns about immigration – though these are considerably overblown and universalised, and have been fuelled by years – decades – of unchecked scare stories and inflammatory reporting by tabloid media. Yes, there are illegal immigrants here, but that’s a failing of our systems, as managed by our government, and not something we can reasonably pin on the EU, EU citizens, as the facts show us time and time again, generally benefit our economy. They are not illegal immigrants, any more than are our British “expats” who’re living out in continental Europe. (And it’s not as if we’re powerless over EU citizens, either: they must obey our laws or they can be easily repatriated. Hell, we can do that if we just suspect they might break our laws!)
And the EU isn’t democratic, we’re constantly told. Is it a perfect democracy? No. Show me one (ours has lords, bishops and a queen in it). But the EU most certainly is a democracy, as you can see if you look at how it actually works; the respective authorities and functions of the Parliament, the Council and the Commission. Actually look, and there’s no rational way to argue that it’s undemocratic. Imperfect, sure – you can have that one. But not undemocratic. We’ve elected our MEPs directly (you did vote in the MEP elections, right?); our Council representation is made up of our own national ministers; and the Commission is a civil service function, just like ours (our UK civil service, for whom you didn’t vote), and is directly accountable to the elected Parliament and Council.
It’s expensive and inefficient? Well, it’s not as efficient as it could be. It’s administering an electorate of 500 million people, after all. But in terms of what each function costs us, it’s actually far more efficient and streamlined than our government has ever been.
There are other concerns, too. Recently I’ve noticed a trend for Brexiters to protest the treatment by the EU of African farmers and fishermen, and argue that this is reason why we should Leave. This is illogical. If EU policies are genuinely hurting these people, and we’re genuinely concerned for them, then it makes more sense to use our considerable influence within the EU to get those policies changed, rather than simply stepping aside and saying, “Well, at least it’s not us doing it.” That’s not taking responsibility, it’s surrendering it. And that’s complicity.