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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

What kind of Britain do you Imagine you Want?

The referendum: Everyone else in possession of a 'reckon' has had their say so, while there is time, I thought I'd have mine.

To cut to the chase, like the overwhelming majority of that part of the population whose education extends to degree-level or beyond, who is of a left-wing persuasion, tends to read the Guardian (if they read a paper at all) and is of my sort of age group or younger, I am firmly of the Remain persuasion.

That is not to say that the whole Remain campaign hasn't been a shambles.  The whole debate has been a sequence of ad hominem attacks, crude insults and glib scaremongering on both sides, which I suspect is what was bound to happen when you give political dialogue over to people (well, males anyway) whose education is of the private school/Oxbridge type.  In other words, when dialogue is dominated by people whose entire educational experience of debate is the confrontational, 'sparkly', point-scoring, debate-winning-at-any-cost format that is fostered by the Oxbridge tutorial system, rather than painstaking and careful reasoning. (It is of course this sort of yah-boo-sucks argument that makes up the Commons debate, PMQs etc: and the sort which - unsurprisingly - the equally private-school/Oxbridge-formed media commentariat praises as impressive or as 'winning' the exchange).

Ho hum.  So far, so normal.  But the lies, as a brief perusal of fact-checking groups like FullFact will confirm, have overwhelmingly come from the Brexit campaign. 


To recap just four:
As to the economy, who knows?  I don't.  But it is interesting that most people who do have some idea, don't think it'd be a great idea to leave the EU.  Consider The City.  Billions were wiped off share values and Sterling fell when Brexit scored a big lead in a poll.  Conversely, trading improved on a poll lead for Remain.  OK, you might say, that is the sort of stunt The City always pulls when it looks like it won't get its way - like every time a Labour government looks likely (and they say it's the Unions that hold the country to ransom...).  But think on.  What does the City fear from Labour?  Higher taxes on the rich, financial regulation of the City, a financial transactions (Robin Hood) tax, etc.  A post-Brexit Britain under Johnson, Farage (a former commodities trader after all) and the rest would be even less likely than the current government to introduce higher taxes, City regulation or a Robin Hood tax.  As far as special interests go, the interests of City 'fat cats' would if anything be safer under Brexit.  And yet the City still fears that Brexit would screw up the economy.

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But who cares about any of this? Overwhelmingly, in a way that will have delighted Slavoj Zizek (because it amply confirms pretty much the only important idea he has had) these lies have remained almost impervious to actual fact.  As Zizek argued, things like xenophobia, anti-Semitism and racism - fear of immigrants - don't operate in the realm of the Symbolic (language, 'facts', etc) but in the realm of the Imaginary, so simple facts are almost incapable of challenging them.  As we have seen, actual facts have been dismissed as being 'more lies by the political elite', by lefty liberals, etc.  The outright lies peddled by Brexit have been parlayed somehow into an argument that 'both sides lie'...  And if both sides lie then you choose the argument that fits your prejudice.  'Schrodinger's Immigrant' who simultaneously takes your job and lazes around all day on benefits has featured overwhelmingly at the heart of this prejudice.  He is capable of featuring so strongly precisely because he does not (and cannot) exist; he is simply the imagined 'other'.  The 'other presumed to...'  who has everything you want but can't get (jobs but no work, money, women). 

This is not a figure who can be challenged effectively by Cameron because the only way of challenging his power is through the change of perspective that would focus attention on what is really screwing over the people who fear the immigrant of the Imaginary: neo-liberals like Cameron and his chums.  They are the people dismantling the NHS, ruining facilities though austerity, selling the country off to their friends and family.  The Blairite wing of the Labour party cannot challenge it because their policies of drifting ever right-ward and buying into the narrative of the 'threat' of immigration leaves it nowhere to go.

That said, far left-wing supporters of Brexit are just as deluded.  There are plenty of things about the EU that alarm me as a socialist (the treatment of Greece, TTIP, etc.) but the idea that pulling out of the EU will permit some sort of socialist alternative to appear in the UK is - in any currently envisagable world - nonsense.  Brexit will rupture the Union as Scotland demands separatism(1), leaving England in the perpetual grip of Tory governments.  The EU 'red tape' that Brexiters like Johnson want to scrap is the sort of red tape that preserves workers' rights, health and safety at work, and so on.  Brexit will, even in the very best-case scenario, give Johnson, Farage and the rest of the ideologically extreme neo-liberals three years to further erode the Welfare State, dismantle the NHS, frack under labour constituencies and so on before the next election.  See also my point about the City, above.  Being accused of wishful thinking is something that comes with the territory of being on the Left, but left-wing support for Brexit ('Lexit') is just downright suicidal.

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If you have paid any attention to the debate, and especially if you are a 'Remainer', none of that will be any news or make any difference to your thinking, I suspect.  If you were undecided, though, allow me to appeal to the realm of the Imaginary.  What sort of Britain do you want to live in?

The worldly might of the Royal Navy in 1938. All
this is gone and never coming back
If you think you're going to get the British Empire back, or the days when Britain was on its own, a Great Power in the world, well you're not.  I am as proud as the next person of what Britain and the Empire did in the early 1940s, particularly between June 1940 and the end of 1941, and footage of Royal Navy battleships in line astern (right) makes even a liberal lefty like me feel a twang of national pride.  But those days are gone forever and, WWII aside, the British Empire was not, all in all, a Good Thing in any case.

What '1940', Churchill, Spitfires and the Royal Navy was ultimately all about though - and this is where the Right generally and the Eurosceptic Right in particular consistently mangles history - was about Britain being in Europe, fighting for Europe, as a better place, fighting against intolerance and racism. 

What Brexit has done is fuel precisely the opposite sentiment, fear about foreigners, immigrants - fears unsubstantiated by facts: indeed fears flying in the face of fact (see above) - in order to win its point.  It has argued for 'taking back control (in most cases control we already have - fact) from a shapeless figure of the wicked 'foreigner'.  It has stoked up fears of Muslims, of 'our' country swamped with brown-skinned refugees.  It has allowed its arguments to be used by far right groups like Britain First; it has essentially shared the platform with them, using fundamentally the same arguments.  There has been nastiness and divisiveness on both sides, it is true (which is one reason I dislike referenda so heartily) but the Brexit camp has shamelessly fished in the fetid waters of nationalism and racism and this has allowed people to portray those who fight for Remain, and for the rights of minorities as 'traitors'.  Last week's murder in Yorkshire was not politicised by Remain; it was already a political murder.  Claiming it had nothing to do with the Brexit debate is as politicising (more so) than wanting to fight for what Jo Cox believed.  This event had nothing to do with random loners with mental health issues.  I have mental health issues, about which, for many reasons, I make no secret but the Remain vocabulary has not prompted me to call Brexiters 'traitors' or issue death threats or want to go out and kill its campaigners, not even (to my shame) Katie Hopkins. Death threats have now been received by Yvette Cooper.  An elderly man has been attacked for handing out Remain leaflets (2) 

A Brexit vote is not a racist vote - let's be clear.  There are plenty of legitimate reasons (quite mistaken in my view, but legitimate all the same) to vote Brexit.  The Brexiters have, however, knowingly opened a Pandora's box of racist, petty nationalist unpleasantness and allowed its contents to spew across the political landscape. I am not a big fan of Billy Bragg but I will paraphrase his apparent comment (I can't now find the quote) that 'not everyone who votes for Brexit is a racist, but all the racists will vote for Brexit.'  All the nastiest elements of British politics - UKIP, Britain First, National Action, the EDL and the rest - have supported Brexit and have made arguments that are only mildly more extreme than those spewed out by their more intelligent allies and leaders, Farage, Johnson and the others.

Make no mistake, all those people will feel that a Brexit vote tomorrow legitimises their views and their actions.  A Brexit vote will make those people feel that their views are normalised and acceptable and after Brexit all that will be difficult, indeed, impossible, to get back in the box (and a post-Brexit separate Scotland will be no less petty nationalist). 

If you are undecided, ask yourself this one question: is that a Britain you want to inhabit?

***

Notes:
1: N.b.: The SNP government in Holyrood has done even less to prevent inequality than the Tory government in Westminster.

2: In Carlisle, on England Street, ironically enough.