It appears that the financial crisis could have been avoided, as could the refugee crisis, the closing down of Tata steel and the rise of ISIS. I say this because almost everybody in the country appears to have been secretly harbouring expertise knowledge about monetary policy, economics and the current geo-political climate – and there I was reading Thomas Piketty like a chump.
The EU referendum has certainly reached a nadir, with both sides testing the limit of the truth to the point that even tabloid editors would feel uncomfortable splashing certain arguments on the front page (except for the Mail, who have their proud history of extreme views). Leave have been particularly influential in shoving debate in to the gutter, with Michael Gove telling people to not trust experts (hint: it’s not because they’re wrong, it’s because they disagree with him). As a result, we have a situation where people have no idea what is true and what isn’t anymore, but are being reassured that their viewpoint is correct, as long as the end point is for Leaving or Remaining, depending on who you ask. And we all know the degradation of learned opinions to score political points never has negative consequences: just ask people who wore glasses in Cambodia in the 70’s, or those blokes in Syria who once worked as librarians. Being wrong is the new being right.
For example, we can take the argument that the EU is undemocratic. If Johnson et al are to be believed, the EU is a kafkaesque trap, where democracy goes to die. Never mind that MEP’s are elected using a more representative system than our MP’s, nor that the European Council are made up of elected heads of state, or even that the European Commission is selected by these heads of state and then ratified by the (democratically elected) MEP’s – it is undemocratic because sometimes it does things that we disagree with, and democracy isn’t democracy unless it suits certain people, apparently.
What about our sovereignty though? Again, given the misgivings about this issue one would imagine that we are ruled over by Brussels with Juncker and Merkel doing their best re-enactment of Macbeth. This argument, of course, ignores that we have agreed to the vast majority of laws that have been passed, with a miniscule amount going through without our wholehearted approval. It also seems to ignore that we have opted out of being in Schengen, opted out of the Euro and have more opt-outs than any other country in the EU. The whole point of a collaborative organisation is to collaborate, funnily enough.
But we still have freedom of movement – and immigration (despite what many are trying to claim) is what is really driving most decisions in this referendum. “Uncontrolled mass immigration” has supposedly been the main cause of the near-unbearable pressure on our local services, the draining of our benefit pool and compressed wages. Assuming that post-Brexit we would opt out of being in the EEA, then we would have an “Australian-style” points system for immigrants from Europe. Of course, we have a point system for non-EU immigration, but that didn’t stop us from accepting more migrants from outside the EU than in. Moreover, EU migrants are more likely to be of working age and contribute tax than other migrants, less likely to claim benefits than any other citizen group, less likely to use health services (and more likely to be vital to their smooth running, especially in Social Care), less likely to be petro-billionaires buying property in the South-East and driving up prices to the point where anyone under 30 can’t afford a house without the help of their parents, and so on and so forth. If people would like to discuss pressures on the NHS, it would make sense to discuss our ageing and fattening population. If school places and social housing are the issue, then it is immigration from outside of Europe that needs talking about.
Wage compression, however, is something that can be linked to EU migration. Again though, the unscrupulous employer paying £2.50/hour is more to blame than the migrant doing work that most likely would go undone without them. There are definite issues with people feeling alienated in their own communities and a lack of integration, although this would have been negated by some sort of migration impact fund and English classes to speed up integration – both programmes that we once had before the government threw them on to the ideological bonfire.
Brexit would not fix our immigration problems. We would still be bound by the Geneva convention and 1951 Refugee Convention, and therefore would have to maintain our asylum obligations. Illegal immigrants would still find ways in to the country and arguments around immigrant groups not integrating in to their communities are almost wholly based on the example of non-EU immigration. Moreover, we have an ageing population and a declining birth rate – the practical reality of the situation is that there would be a healthcare crisis without a fairly high level of migration. There’s also the pensions elephant in the room – already consuming about 40% of our benefits budget, it will continue to bloat and require evermore funding from tax receipts. There are definitely problems with our immigration policy and it’s not racist to say that, but it is wrong to say that Brexit can get close to solving them.
Then there is the argument that the EU is incapable of reform. This is often mentioned alongside the fact that it has changed too much from the original organisation. Very few people seem to spot the inconsistency there. On a more practical level, EU laws are constantly reforming. If we take Nigel Farage’s favourite example – the Common Fisheries Policy – we can see a vast change in how aspects of the policy have been legislated for. As late as 2014 there was a major shift in the policy around wastage, which was as the result of public pressure (on a side note, Nigel could have influenced the policy a lot earlier whilst on the European Parliament Fisheries Committee, but decided to only attend one of over forty meetings – friend of the fishermen indeed).
The economics argument is more nuanced in that long-term economic predictions are mostly educated guesses. However, it is almost universally accepted that there will be a negative impact on the economy in the short term. One of the few true facts of economics is that markets hate instability, and the sheer amount of unknowns around Brexit are the very definition of an unstable political climate. Nevertheless, Michael Gove has recently come out and said there would be no negative effect on the economy – a brazen lie that is a sad sign of the times.
There are certainly more eloquent and convincing arguments for Brexit, but they are few and far between. So why have these more common arguments, which are so simply refuted, taken hold in recent weeks, giving Brexit a slight lead in the polls? The honest answer is that they haven’t – but the messaging of Vote Leave has simply tapped in to a particularly angry section of the electorate. The people that are more likely to vote for Brexit are the disenfranchised, the less-educated and the ones who have borne the brunt of the last few years of austerity. Years of successive politicians blaming external factors, especially the EU, on all of our woes has led to the permeation of our culture with this inherent dislike of “the other”. This is not the insidious racism that Nigel Farage exudes, but is more borne of frustration. The common sentiment is “I don’t dislike others, but I think we need to look after our own first”, and even though the facts show that we are overwhelmingly first, or that services are creaking due to other factors (i.e. underfunding) the outcome is still the same: blame the EU, because it can’t be our fault.
That is why the phrase “take control” has become the Leavers most powerful tool, despite the fact that it is essentially a meaningless platitude, akin to “four legs good, two legs bad” or Lois Griffin repeating 9/11 over and over again to an adoring crowd. People do not want expert opinion or facts from those that have enacted policies that seemingly detriment the average Briton, hence why Michael Gove’s sudden appeal to anti-intellectualism is gaining ground. After years of being downtrodden and belittled, many are sick and tired of any type of establishment and are using the EU as a scapegoat for their ills, despite the fact that it has barely anything to do with their problems, if anything at all. There is a cognitive dissonance between the fact that people voted in a government who has screwed them (or didn’t vote at all) and taking a bit of responsibility for poor democratic choices. This is not to bash the intelligence of those voting Leave; as anyone who has heard Eddie Izzard speak over the last few weeks, Remainers are also guilty of piling up the bullshit for their cause. However, less formal education does often mean a lack of critical reasoning and ability to see nuance, and this combined with obvious demographic change means that ire is often directed at the visible as opposed to the invisible, insidious programme of austerity. Moreover, this destruction of our infrastructure and national support network has led to people feeling like they no longer have control of their own destinies – hence the popularity of the “take control” phrase and the sentiment that others are getting a better deal.
As many commentators have noted in recent weeks, we have reached a period of “Post-Truth politics”, where one does not have to back up their assertions with the facts or with evidence, but simply needs to say a few key words that speak to our most basal and visceral of sensibilities. Whether it’s David Cameron baselessly calling an OAP “a threat to your family”, or Nigel Farage unveiling Goebbels-like posters, the truth is being eschewed for tabloid smut. A vote to leave the EU is a fairly benign outcome to this sort of politics if we look at the grand scheme of things, but if we continue to allow populism based on unfounded claims to flourish, we will begin to see a lot worse.