Brexit or Remain: The Deceptive Lure of Choice

20131243153252734_20I’m not implying that the UK’s referendum on leaving or staying in the EU is not an important one. The choice will have an impact on our lives – although it’s probably not as drastic as the talking heads of either camp would like us to believe. On both sides, our ‘leaders’ have really let us down; presenting their points of view as an absolute, universal truth and encouraging us to do the same.

There is no right answer to the EU question. There are answers that reflect the aspirations of various people with various world views, interests, agendas and prejudices. The Leave camp in particular has been very badly served by talking heads:

  1. Repeating the falsehood that the UK sends £350 million a week to Brussels. We don’t. We send about £250 million a week. Their refusal to back down on the gross vs net figure has done them no credit. Most people might feel £250 million is a big enough figure already. In over-egging the pudding, they’ve rendered all their other figures and predictions equally questionable. The country needed people to tell them the truth. What they kept forcing down our throats was spin.
    It’s helpful to see it visually. That little sliver at the top – that’s the part of our budget we send to the EU as fees. (The real cost of our EU membership is much more than just our fees, but fees were what was being bandied about, and here’s the amount – in context.)
  2. The conflation of refugees from war zones, economic migrants and the free movement of people in EU member states.3069
    These are Syrian refugees queueing on the border of Slovenia. This kind of visual conflation feeds the narrative that the UK is being ‘overrun’ by immigrants, feeding a very real xenophobic aspect of our culture that doesn’t benefit from being fed for the health of our society – regardless of whether we stay or leave. Farage’s refusal to acknowledge the misleading and emotionally manipulative (as well as exploitative) nature of the poster underscores the my sense that the truth, ethics and morality doesn’t matter to the people who want me to vote leave.
  3. The poignant nostalgia of a lost Britain. This is harder to directly pin onto the leaders of the Leave campaign, although it is very much there in their language and the broad stroke portrait of a post-EU Britain. I hear it time after time in interviews of people talking about why they will be voting to leave: their belief that the coal mines, the steel mills, the shipyards will all magically come back once we leave the EU. There is a significant proportion of older Britons who have been shamefully encouraged in their delusions of a return to Britain as an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse once the shackles of EU regulation are off. The irony is that our inability to grasp and ride some new wave of industrial success has at least partly been due to our nostalgia for a lost past. You can’t get on the next boat while standing on the docks mourning the sinking of the last. What would make a new wave of British industry possible is a visionary plan, governmental support, investment and retraining. Sadly, I don’t see any leaders on either side of the political spectrum waiting in the wings to lead us there.

In truth, what I see from the Leave-side leadership is a bunch of  selfish business people who are sick of filling out forms and conforming with the more onerous aspects EU regulations on treating workers decently. On the voter side, I see insecure people who, after decades of manipulation, mistreatment and neglect by their own successive governments, fear the ‘other’ – whether Polish farm worker, Syrian refugee or Somali economic migrant – because their resistance to that embodied ‘other’ is the only power they think they have left. If we leave the EU, there is good data to suggest that we will have to weather a short-term recession, but my gut says that we will neither see a return to the glory days of Empire and industrial might, nor will we slide down the pole into economic apocalypse ; we’ll be okay. We’ll just have British bureaucrats taking up where the EU ones left off, because it’s not as if the Brits haven’t always had an innate talent for that anyway.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the Remain campaign are just as toxic – their language just as fear-driven and emotionally manipulative. Cameron’s pleas for us to Remain for ‘the good of the working people’ are laughable. Similarly, Osborne’s threats of imminent economic oblivion following a Brexit rang so false he had to resort to threats of a tax spanking.

The reality is that the EU – as it is currently constituted – tends to economically benefit banking and big business, which has the muscle to lobby strenuously on its own behalf. It is no surprise that Neoliberal, pro-globalisation politicians support Remain, not because of some underlying noble sense of community, but because of easier market access and freer capital flow. These people aren’t concerned for your human rights, I promise you. While pointing out that Brexit will mean a lack of foreign nurses to staff the NHS with one hand, they’re aiming to cut all the grants for UK nursing education with the other. While the Leave campaign might seem more overtly offensive in their manipulative encouragement of xenophobia, much of the Remain campaign are madly obscuring their deeply self-serving motives for wanting to stay.

We simply can’t predict the future with any degree of confidence – our future will be different, depending whether we stay or leave the EU, but not as disastrous or as glorious as either of the camps would have you believe.

Here’s what I think, if you’re interested:

  1. Most of what’s wrong with life in the UK presently has little to do with the EU. The slow but steady disinvestment in our social safety net: schools, the NHS, transport, housing, etc. is the site of pain for many Britons. This disinvestment is a result of successive British governments’ move to Neoliberal economic policies that favour privatisation over the state running and funding of those systems and institutions. Similarly, successive governments (Tory and Labour) have favoured the deregulation of markets over governmental and economic policies that even out economic disparity. Your inability to get your child into a good school, to get decent health service, to move around the country at a sane price, or find affordable housing has nothing to do with our EU membership. While EU workers have put some pressure on some of those resources, it is the chronic lack of investment and poor management into those institutions, not added pressure on them, that is at fault.
  2. I think the concept of independent nation states is dying. We are becoming increasingly interdependent – information-wise, financially, ecologically, socially – that the idea of reverting to ‘Plucky Little Britain’ is a nostalgic retreat into unreality. For better or worse, it’s just not going to happen.
  3. The vast majority of important laws – laws that tangibly affect Britons on a day to day basis – are formulated right here, in the UK, by Parliament. No country with trading agreements or who is a signatory to the UN charter or the Geneva Convention is entirely self-directed. We agree to comply with international laws all the time, mostly to our global benefit. Many of them were written by us!
  4. Brussels needs to be more democratic, accountable and transparent. But voting to leave the EU will certainly not force them to change. ‘In’ we can work towards that change, ‘out’ we have to watch on the sidelines and hope the Europeans do it. Because, even if we leave, the political health and economic state of the EU will affect us.
  5. The economic devastation of the North is not going to be solved by a Brexit. Those leaders who champion leaving the EU have had decades to work on a renewal of industry in the North and the EU wasn’t standing in their way. They’re selfish and lack courage and vision and they want to blame that on the EU instead of owning their apathy.
  6. I will never forget or forgive what the EU did to Greece. It was the structure of the EU that enabled Greece’s outrageous government borrowing, and now it’s the EU that is presiding over the economic torture of Greece’s poorest citizens. The EU puts the economic interests of banking institutions above any idealistic, humanitarian sense of community.
  7. The EU’s desire for a larger membership meant that it included nations with massive GDP differences, forcing the citizens to suffer the disparity between reality and a centrally-controlled Euro. Until the EU imposes and enforces a rationalized minimum wage across all member states, it needs to be more flexible about its free-flow of labour rules. If we Remain, this is literally the most important long-term project we need to force the EU to undertake.
  8. Anyone who doubts that relations between European nations could devolve into the animosity of the pre-war years needs a refresher course in European history. The EU does help keep us talking to each other. It does inhibit the growth of radical, nationalist movements. It sets a tone of civility between nations in Europe which has kept us at peace for many, many years.
  9. The Stay or Leave ‘choice’ is something of a deception. If we really want to decide what our society will look like in the future, we should be focusing on our own government’s internal social and economic policies, not on Brexit. The lure of choice in Brexit is keeping us from exercising our far more pressing responsibility to vote, nationally, for a kinder,  more egalitarian, and more visionary Britain.

I know I haven’t addressed all the issues. I’m not pretending to be free of bias. This is where I tell you how I’m voting, right? No. Does it really matter? Do you care? Have I helped you consider anything more rationally? Have I just confused you more? (If you really want to know how I’m voting and you can’t guess by reading this post, you can ask me on twitter @remittancegirl or on facebook.)