12 Jul 2016 - How we lost the European Union
In the biggest democratic vote this country has ever seen, a few muppets beat the combined might of every living Prime Minister, nearly every expert on every subject, the captains of industry, the unions, the City of London, and every foreign leader who isn't a lunatic. It's too astonishing to believe; but it's even worse than it looks: although the final victory was by 4%, most psephologists agree that the murder of Jo Cox halted momentum for Leave at a time when polls were starting to show Leave well ahead; and retrospective analysis of opinion polls by the L.S.E. suggests that Leave was ahead for the whole of 2016, including by 13% on the day of Jo Cox's murder. Looking forward, we must understand why this happened.
The reaction to the "Leave" vote from us Remainers so far has been disbelief, grief, anger, and a fair bit of lashing out. Many of us Remainers have been loudly proclaiming how we feel angry, powerless, that part of our identity is being taken away, that we despair that the country is now being controlled by people we don't relate to and cannot understand. Which is interesting, because that's exactly what Leavers have been saying they have been feeling for 15 years. Hands on hearts now Remainers: how many of us gave a damn when the people we dismissed as "little Englanders" said that? Will they now treat us the way we treated them - with contempt and ridicule? Oops. Ignoring the 48% seemed like such a good idea when we were the 52%; but who could have imagined that a majority would ever change, right?
It's easy point at bogeymen like Nigel Farage, but he is just a symptom, not the underlying cause. There are Farages in every other country in Europe doing well, and of course, uber-Farage Donald Trump is within a whisker of becoming President in the USA. Farage is an idiot, and for that we should be thankful because if UKIP was led by a decent leader they could be stomping all over the other parties right now and challenging for an election win. There's no point blaming Cameron for calling the referendum. There has been a demand from the voters for this vote for at least a decade, and it's peculiar for democrats to argue it's a mistake to ask the people what direction they think the country should take - that's part of the political arrogance that got us to this mess. If we genuinely feel the voters can no longer be asked the most important questions, then democracy is fundamentally broken.
No, Brexit is as much our failure, as a victory of the bogeymen. A year ago I wrote an article about the 2015 election, pointing out that it was the worst result for progressives in generations: for the first time the Conservatives and parties to their right won 51% of the vote and there hadn't been a "progressive majority" in the country. I argued this wasn't due to the brilliance of conservatives, it was due the the what I called "Malaise of the progressive left", which has seen progressives think they can win arguments with righteous anger instead of logical argument, get hung up on vacuous social media trends, turn political correctness from a useful guide into a bizarre religion, and generally alienate mainstream voters. It wasn't a very popular article - most liberals didn't like it and Lib Dem Voice refused to publish it, because, let's face it: we don't like being told that we lost because we're talking crap rather than because the other side were mean and underhand.
Looking back, warning signs were there. The shocking 2014 Euro Election win for UKIP (the first time a party outside the big three had ever won a national election in the UK) was a wake-up call. So was the shock 2015 General Election result. There is no single cause of our failure, but a historic sequence of many that have built a powerful narrative of resentment against the establishment and the EU. No one's hands are clean here - this was a failure so huge it needed everyone to help screw it up.
Identity matters. The political left knows this as it has been dangerously promoting identity as a rallying concept for a decade now through the ghastly philosophy of "Identity Politics" - subdividing society into ever smaller identity pigeon-holes and granting special status and privileges to individuals on that basis. But not for everyone: if you're just "British" or "English", those identities don't count - they're not real identities, apparently. In much the same way that the hopes and fears of "little Englanders" don't count (unlike ours), because their views aren't valid (unlike ours). Any strategy that emphasises differences over commonality is bound to lead to antagonism, but when you say this group must have special privilege because of their special identity, and so must that group, but you lot get nothing because of you're just English...well that's humiliating. For many in the non-religious working-class their Englishness or their Britishness *is* their identity - to them it is as important as ethnicity is to minorities or religion is to Catholics or Muslims or Hindus.
The Remain campaign made a huge mistake by surrendering English patriotism to Leave, wilfully making the referendum a binary choice between English identity and European identity, and sneering at "little Englanders". It doesn't have to be this way - no one doubts the patriotism of the French, nor their EU commitment intertwined with it. What's depressing is how recently we saw the joy of the 2012 Olympics, and the positive patriotism that harnessed. When Mo Farah was asked, wrapped in the Union Flag, if he'd rather run for Somalia, he replied (in a London accent) "Look, mate, this is my country", and millions of us had tears in our eyes. Why did Remain throw the power of this away?
Perhaps it was Scottish referendum aftermath that sunk it. While separatism has become ever more trendy, any discussion about English self-determination was met with pure horror from progressives. Identity and self-determination is evidently for other people, not the English. And so the areas with highest English and working-class identity all voted Leave heavily.
The white working classes are not, nor have they ever been, privileged; witness the tiny proportion of working-class university students, doctors, lawyers, MPs, etc. When university educated, well-travelled middle-class people tell white working-class people who have lived tough lives in crumbling estates and had nothing easy in life...that they are privileged and need to "move over" for less privileged newcomers to the country, it goes down like a bucket of cold sick - especially if they are then told they need to change their own behaviours to accommodate the newcomers' religious and cultural sensibilities. So there was a strong element of "sticking it to the establishment" that swung hundreds of thousands of vote for Leave.
A lot of people have been pointing the finger of blame at "austerity", but as the UK economy has improved to one of the strongest around (well, until the Brexit shock), the plausibility of austerity as the cause of all life's problems has faded away. The one strong argument left is wage stagnation - but the main causes of wage stagnation near the bottom of the ladder had been the availability of cheap migrant labour from the EU. Oops.
Lack of investment and immigration have both put strains on housing, education, the NHS, and some say that spending should increase to deal with the immigration strain on those, but what happens when the electorate resoundingly says "No. I don't want my taxes increased to pay for immigration I already said clearly I don't want" ?
For years anti-austerity campaigners have said we should emulate America, where Obama didn't follow an austerity policy. Well, unemployment in UK and US both is at historic lows of 5%, with record employment levels...and yet America still has Donald Trump with the presidency in his grasp! Likewise in Sweden - for generations the utopian welfare state of left-wing commentators - has no deficit and very low national debt, and has had no austerity at all as a result...and yet they have just been rocked to the core by the rise of their own UKIP, the "Sweden Democrats", crashing into Parliament as the third largest party and taking 1/7 of all the seats. What's their excuse? The long winter nights? No, austerity is a marginal blame at most.
The radical left has never liked the EU, considering it to be a "bastion of neoliberalism". Jeremy Corbyn voted against it first time around, and is believed to have voted against it this time too, while Tony Benn spent his last 40 years campaigning against it. Corbyn refused to share a platform with David Cameron, saying they had no shared vision (though he is happy to share a platform with the IRA, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc). Left-wing polemicist Owen Jones spent 2015 arguing for Leave before finally changing his mind, while eco-writer George Monbiot called the EU a "festering cesspool", "the worst choice apart from the alternative", and "a lesser evil". With friends like these, who needs enemies?
The political right has no monopoly on lies, and the real harm to the Remain campaign from the radical left was from the lies of the anti-TTIP campaign. The claim that TTIP would privatise the NHS was invented by the anti-capitalist left for the 2015 General Election, in the hope it would help lead to a Syriza-like sweep to victory. EU Trade Commissioner and lead EU negotiator Karel de Gucht said in 2014, "Public services are always exempted - there is no problem about exemption. The argument is abused in your country for political reasons but it has no grounds." Those people who helped promote that TTIP/NHS lie sent tens thousands of votes to Leave. You know who you are: step up and own your blame.
The EU has - like all bodies that have power - developed a strong degree of self-preservation. With relatively little direct accountability, the EU has lots in common with a super-giant quango and shares many behaviours. Jean-Claude Juncker and his team are typical of the mentality of those defending their "baby" rather than looking to reform - they are invested in the status quo. The EU Commission is very definitely part of the problem and needs more statesmanship and less petulance. The EU needs to do much less, and it needs to do those things much better.
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) has nothing to do with the EU: it is an excellent document, like a Bill of Rights for Europe, and many more countries than the EU are signed up to it. But in the public mind it is part of the EU, and any problems with the ECHR become inescapably tied to the perception of the EU. The ECHR is mostly a great thing; but it isn't perfect, and unwelcome "judicial activism" that had taken hold in it - among both British and European Court judges - expanding the scope of the Convention beyond its design. We now find ourselves with an inability to deport violent foreign sex offenders because they might face persecution in their home country for the crimes they committed here, unable to deport dangerous foreign criminals if they are also wanted in their home country and that country is suspected of using torture (which is much of the Middle East and central Asia), unable to deport dangerous foreign criminals because they have found a girlfriend or have got someone pregnant. This was never the intention of the "framers" of the Convention, nor would Parliament ever legislate that way; we clearly need mechanisms to indicate to judges when they have overstepped the limits of their legal powers - as exist in every other legal system - but unfortunately we liberals have been at the forefront of preventing that from happening.
The Abu Hamza case in particular was an utter disaster for the ECHR: it took £20million and 8 years to get rid of a dangerous man who had made a life of radicalising people in this country and persuading them to go and join jihad wars. It was an absolute travesty that he exploited - with the help of activist judges - laws designed to protect citizens from people exactly like him; but more importantly, it did huge and probably irreparable damage to the reputation of the ECHR, and by unfortunate association: the EU. Our inability to deal with these people has made us a haven for international hate-preachers and led to the absurdity of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh criticising the UK for *exporting* Islamist radicalism and not doing enough to tackle it! Let's be clear: British citizens should never be put at risk in order to save foreign criminals from risk. And it's no use blaming the Daily Mail for making a big deal out of these cases, because they really are a big deal - ordinary people are understandably outraged by cases like these. Our failure to deal with them cost hundreds of thousands of votes to Leave.
Immigration is mostly a good thing, and the countries and empires that allow it and deal with it do the best in history (although, we should always remember that the migration of talent from poor countries to rich countries can have a devastating effect on the future of those poor countries). Immigration built America into one of the greatest nations the world has ever seen in just a few centuries. (Probably best not to ask actual Native Americans what they think of immigration though, as it destroyed their 10,000 year old culture). But immigration has downsides that need to be acknowledged and dealt with. While immigration benefits the economy as a whole, most of the benefits go to the middle classes (e.g. cheaper home extensions), and most of the costs hit the working classes (e.g. pay-rates in construction trades dropping by 50%).
The current level of immigration is unprecedented. Whenever something is unprecedented, it's worth paying attention. The rate of demographic change is remarkable: 27% of UK-born babies are born to mothers born outside of the UK; in London *most* babies are. This number was 12-13% for decades, but has surged since 1997 when the Labour government started loosening immigration rules, and is on an upward trajectory. Tony Blair must also take some blame for choosing not to impose transitional controls when the eastern countries joined the EU in 2004, unlike every other country in Europe except Sweden and Ireland (neither of which were attractive to migrant workers). It was a big misjudgement, as Chris Huhne said in 2008, "The scale of the error is breathtaking - actual immigration was 1,373% higher than the forecast."
Absorbing so many people into British culture will not be easy. One of major problems is that in many cities, ethnic ghettoes have formed where cultural integration had stopped and even gone into reverse. The 1990s vision of multicultural integration has been discarded to allow acceptance of, and even promotion of, these ghettoes; a move that has been strongly condemned by the former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips.
For decades the biggest strain on housing was not from immigration but from decreasing family sizes, driven largely by the desire of the middle classes to live alone until their mid-30s and their ability to afford that. In the last decade primary strain has changed, and it doesn't take a genius to realise that if net immigration is 350,000 that will use up most of the annual new-build home count of 140,000, even if newcomers live 4 to a house (which they often do). To make it worse, those same middle classes are also the most vociferous in opposing new housing as well! I'm going to point the finger here particularly at the eco-left, who are proud to signal their tolerance by protesting with signs saying "Immigrants welcome" but have often spent the previous week arguing that both population growth and economic growth are bad things, and the week before that campaigning against the new roads and housing developments necessary to absorb immigration. If you are in favour of something but against all of its consequences then you simply haven't thought it through.
The nature of our benefits system continues to act as an immigration draw and source of perceived unfairness. The UK has mostly non-contributory benefits, which means that someone who has been here not very long and paid in little gets the same benefit amount as someone who has paid in for 30 years. The intransigence of other EU countries to allow changes to eligibility to EU benefit laws to deal with this is because they have contributory benefit systems so the issue simply doesn't affect them. Those countries need to accept some blame for refusing to see how this issue affects the UK. The previous Labour government realised this was becoming a problem, and a commission was set up to look at increasing the contributory element in UK benefits, but it was dropped by Ed Miliband who thought it would be too unpopular with Labour members. The thing is, in a globalised world you can have generous non-contributory benefits or you can have free migration, but you cannot plausibly have both.
The British Social Attitudes survey in 2013 found that 77% of people think immigration is too high, 17% about right, 4% too low; while YouGov in 2015 found 75%, 18%, and 2% respectively. Those numbers have been stable for a decade. Concerns about immigration became a top issue under Labour during the boom, when it can't be blamed on "austerity". Opposition to the current levels is so high that even if 95% of Leave voters think immigration is too high, a majority of Remain voters must also think immigration is too high. At some point we have to come to terms with majority opinion here, or honestly accept that we are no longer democrats in any serious sense of the word.
Policy is not binary: there are more options than just pulling up the draw-bridge or a full open-doors regime. It's perfectly possible to be pro-immigrant and pro-refugee, but to want proper controls and management of both. Immigration was obviously the single biggest vote winner for Leave (even though half of immigration is not from the EU). We simply won't win back support for the EU until we get to grips with the numbers, because this sent millions of votes to Leave.
The European refugee crisis has caused shock-waves across the continent, and although relatively few of the 1.2 million that crossed into Europe last year have come to the UK, stories of the crisis in other EU countries have alarmed many people. The best place to deal with refugees is in their own country - to make them safe. Failing that, to deal with them just over the border of their own country, to allow them to go home easily when the danger has passed. Failing that, the most vulnerable and least able (families, children, the elderly) should be taken out of the refugee camps and brought to our own countries in an *orderly* way - with screening against Islamist terrorists. The best solution is definitely *not* to encourage millions to use vast, international people-smuggling networks of organised criminals to make a chaotic, dangerous, journey over thousands of miles of sea and mountains - this will inevitably kill thousands. That solution also guarantees that the most able and least vulnerable will make up the bulk of refugees; i.e. youngish men.
Predictably, most of the refugees who made the journey into Europe ended up being youngish men, despite that demographic representing only about about a quarter of the source demographic. When most of them have been living and working in Turkey for a year or more to build up enough money to pay people smugglers, it's difficult to see the line between refugee and economic migrant. Worse than that, refugees in European cities are now dominated by disaffected, unemployed, youngish men - the demographic most likely to get drawn into crime or other horrors like Cologne New Year's Eve scandal. Angela Merkel is a decent politician wanting to do decent things and atone for Germany's history, and for that she deserves credit. Her motive was noble, but just because something is noble doesn't mean it wont get screwed up, and that screw-up was exploited and sent hundreds of thousands of votes to Leave.
20 years ago, "Political Correctness" was a set of fair guidelines for avoiding offending minorities who had historically been ignored or persecuted. It was a good idea, because avoiding being rude isn't hard, and making people feel welcome and safe is a good idea. By 10 years ago Political Correctness had evolved into an increasingly bizarre dogma that was promoted with the fervour of religion, and it started to have very harmful side effects - in particular the reluctance of authorities to deal with unacceptable behaviours in immigrant communities, as was exposed by Dame Louise Casey's report into the Rotherham abuse scandal. In that case, an astonishing 1,400 children had been sexually abused in the town between 1997 and 2013 by ethnic minority gangs, but a climate of "suppression and misplaced political correctness" in the authorities prevented any actions to stop it. Since then similar scandals have been exposed in towns across the country.
Though it dropped quickly from the mainstream news, the Rotherham scandal and those after it were a very significant factor in stoking anti-immigrant sentiment across northern England. The BNP were saying for a decade that there was organised abuse of school-girls going on across towns in the North, but we didn't believe them because they're racist jerks out to cause trouble. Unfortunately, it was true. When working-class parents look at the different mainstream media reaction to, say, the Ched Evans case (which was a source of metropolitan media rage for months) compared to the Rotherham scandal, and then they hear that in Germany and Sweden the police and media conspired to keep crimes by immigrants out of the news, you can see why they might be persuaded by racists that "It's one rule for us but a different rule for them". Working-class families are entitled to ask why their under-age daughters didn't get the kind of support from the establishment and commentariat that the woman in the Ched Evans case got. We need to think about that, no matter how awkward it makes us feel. It's not that political correctness has gone mad, it's that it has gone bad - what it has become is facilitating genuine harm to real people.
A good proportion of the "Christmas now banned!" stories the Daily Mail loves are made up, but unfortunately a number of them are not. In April, Bristol City Council really did say Bristol is "a city with 91 different languages and it would be very difficult to commemorate them all" as its reason for not having a St George's Day celebration - clearly forgetting that English is a rather more important identity for an English city than any other. Although it was retracted, this kind of stupidity says very loudly to those with strong English identity that it is under threat from those 91 cultures. It must be noted that it's never immigrants themselves who request these things - the overwhelming majority of them know it's obnoxious to turn up as a guest and then ask your host to change behaviour. No, it's well-meaning - but idiotic - bleeding-heart liberals doing the damage here, sending tens of thousands of votes to Leave every time.
So what now? More people voted to leave the EU than have ever voted for anything else. Seeking to overturn the result could quite well result in major civil disorder, and people advocating circumventing the result should ask themselves how they would feel if the reverse happened. Caution and cool heads are needed on all sides - the principles of democracy are much more important than any single event, and weakening democracy will make us all losers. It's also disappointing to see some progressives with an obvious desire that Europe now turns on us and the UK breaks up and goes into recession, "just to show the 52% what they've done". Presumably these are the kind of people who want their friends to get hurt when they don't take their advice...
So, will we again refuse to compromise with the electorate and instead try to eek out another tiny majority so we can stamp our vision of the future onto the other 48% again? I hope not. In the UK the EU died the death of a thousand cuts over the last decade, and we cannot resurrect the body with a few sticking plasters. The referendum campaign, with its dog-whistles and divisiveness, has unleashed a burst of xenophobia; the problem is that those issues I have outlined above still need to be addressed - now more than ever - but those who have never wanted to address them will argue that addressing now them is "pandering to racists".
The road to Brexit is long and will take several years at least, and on that journey there might be junctions that lead back to the EU. Remainers need rise above bitterness and to make workable proposals for all these issues that lost EU support, so that if such a junction appears (for example, a General Election) we might take the road to the EU. But we should be under no illusion that persuading the public to go back to the EU will be easy - it won't. We will have to win back many millions to the European cause, and how many we can win back depends on how many of these issues we are willing to address and compromise with the majority on. History suggests the answer is somewhere between 'not many' and 'none'; but it's possible that the mounting number of very painful defeats might focus a few more minds.
Cllr Mark Wright