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Why the Brexit debate needs to go beyond the playground

Why the Brexit debate needs to go beyond the playground

🕔14.Jun 2016

In the second of our EU Referendum posts today, Chamberlain Files editor Kevin Johnson reflects on the campaign and sets out his reasons for voting Remain. 

When my six year-old started to comment on the domination of Vote Leave posters during our Devon half term break, I began to worry. There are obviously many geographic (as well as social and generational) parts of the country that are dominated by Brexiters. When he gave a very reasonable explanation of what the referendum was all about (better than most of the street vox pops you see on TV) and started asking questions about how exactly the same posters were appearing throughout the country, my concerns grew. Has my addiction to politics already inflicted my eldest?

We’re at the business end of the referendum debate, so I thought it time to nail my colours to the mast. If debate is what you call it. I’ve been struck by the number of people, including at the EU Ref lunch on which we joined forces with Downtown in Birmingham last week, who say they want more facts before they can vote in confidence. They have a point, particularly if you don’t have the time to go fact checking beyond news headlines.

I happen to think the facts are there, but the Leave campaign has been – shall we say – economical with the actualité and the Remain campaign has been – bluntly – rubbish. Meanwhile, trust ratings for the BBC which, for some including me is still an impartial source of information, are not what they were. Alongside the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Office of National Statistics, maybe we need an Office of Actual Facts.

For the Stronger In camp, they must have assumed a robust economic argument about the benefits of the EU, backed by one recognised organisation with three initials after another, would win with ease over a case resting on immigration and sovereignty. It was a miscalculation at the beginning, but more importantly it genuinely concerns me they’ve left it too late to change the messaging and tone of the Remain campaign.

The BeLeavers have passion on their side, perhaps in a similar way to how Scots independents were able to inject more emotion into their campaign last year. It is, after all, easier to use that stored up anger and thread it through your campaign, especially with the likes of Boris and Nigel appealing to key sections of the electorate which a polished Etonian son of a stockbroker will never reach.

The Leave campaign has already won the battle of the slogans and hashtags. #TakeControl is simple, flexible and has worked beautifully for them.

But it’s more than the characters and straplines. There is a strong anti-establishment thread that has underpinned this campaign. It’s a reaction to all manner of ills, from those who perceive they have lost out through globalisation; a hangover from the 2008 financial crash; anti-austerity and a growing mistrust of all official bodies following scandals in just about every public institution and corner of British society over the last decade from MP’s expenses to the police, NHS, Army, the BBC and the wider press to name a few. Michael Gove may have sounded ridiculous suggesting “people in this country have had enough of experts” in the Sky News debate, but he latched onto an anti-establishment, anti-politics, anti-expert meme.

So, is it any wonder when you line up a quintessentially establishment politician with the likes of the IMF, top economists, big business, academics and ‘luvvies’ that many voters will simply say ‘enough is enough.’

To be fair, there are economic arguments worth listening to on the Leave side. There are even moments when I find myself thinking gosh, ‘you make a good point there Nigel’. There is no black and white. As I say to those searching for absolute truth in this debate, in the end you have to weigh up the facts and forecasts and make your own judgement.

Sovereignty, democracy and notions of independence have been a feature of the Leave campaign. To suggest that the EU is some model of democratic utopia would be ridiculous in the extreme. The redrawing of the EU constitution in the mid 2000s – in which Vote Leave chair and Birmingham Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart was involved – to address the fact a growing EU needs to work differently from a community made up of a handful of nation states was hardly a runaway success.

But there is an awful lot of nonsense talked about “unelected Eurocrats” and the rest that the Remain camp has been woeful at rebutting. For anyone in the undecided camp and for who this issue is a key criteria, it’s worth looking at just how the system of the Council of Ministers, European Commissioners, European and national Parliaments actually works and at the facts on how many times the UK has supposedly been ‘outvoted’ and how many laws are down to those Brussels bureaucrats.

Suffice to say there is no legislation that ministers of Her Majesty’s Government, members of the British Parliament and our MEPs have not had more than a hand in writing and enacting.

For a country home to the Mother of Parliaments, it’s worth remembering we enjoy an unelected second chamber, a Government that was elected by less than 25% of the total possible electorate and a system that still relies on the Royal Prerogative for many of its executive powers. Our Prime Minister is appointed by the Queen, not elected by the people or even Parliament, the Cabinet is a committee of the Privy Council made up of ministers of the Crown and we are subjects (not citizens, as we are in terms of the EU) of an unelected, hereditary sovereign.

The clue is in the word: “sovereignty.” Joining a club – a community as was, union as it now is – is based on a decision that as a country, as an economy, as a people we believe sharing powers – or “control” – will make us better off. To pool powers, to discuss and negotiate, to compromise is an essential feature of membership. We win some, we lose some – but by working and acting together we can succeed more than by acting alone in an increasingly competitive, interconnected and globalised world.

Are you telling me that Britain always gets its way at the UN (where we even have a Security Council veto), the Commonwealth (in which the UK is centre stage) or NATO?

And where’s having a vote on remaining in or leaving the European Union when it comes to levels of independence and control?

If we wake up on 24th June and the country has voted Leave, David Cameron will be announcing his intention to resign within hours. He will have to take responsibility for calling the referendum (arguably as a panic response to noisy Tory eurosceptics and the rise of the Kippers) and a pretty meaningless “re-neogotiaiton.”

Referendums are a “device of demagogues and dictators” said Margaret Thatcher in 1975. She might have added “and Switzerland.” I’ve heard quite a few people say that they’re really unsure how to vote, don’t feel they have the facts at their disposal and, anyway, don’t we elect and pay our politicians to decide the answers to complex issues of public policy.

Just how was this referendum supposed to settle this issue? Has the debate over Scottish independence gone away for a generation or more? Is there still a case for electoral reform following a General Election where UKIP and the Greens mustered over five million votes between them, but were rewarded with just 2 MPs?

David Cameron would be responsible as, in effect, the head of the Stronger In campaign that failed (has Stuart Rose been handed back to M&S without the need for a receipt?). But no one can say he’s not done his bit, on the stump, in articles and interviews across the media and in every corner of the land. The same could not be said for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour.

I attended Labour’s EU Referendum rally in Birmingham last week. For anyone not paying full attention, it would have been easy to walk away forgetting what he said about voting Remain or thinking he had other priorities, like removing the terrible Tories from Government and reversing austerity. Just how Billy Bragg helped by suggesting there should be a Third Way (he obviously didn’t use that phrase) on the ballot paper was beyond me.

I have no argument with Mr Corbyn’s approach to put the case for the EU in the context of workers’ rights, tax avoidance or environmental and wildlife protection rather than economic growth per se. I have no issue with him saying that a vote for Remain does not equate to a “blank cheque” and that the need for reform will continue.

But two weeks out and with Leave on a roll, clarity, focus and passion were needed. Labour voters needed to hear the message from their leadership that a vote for Remain is not only recommended to those certain to vote, but that it’s vital to get out the vote.

‘Get rid of all this regulation’ is the Leaving cry. In the aftermath of the financial crash, even classic small Government conservatives were blaming Labour for deregulating the City too much. Regulation is the price for doing business and for being able to compete on equal terms – in respect of product and labour rules – with competitors in Barcelona, Frankfurt and Milan.

The real issue is the goldplating of EU directives at which the British civil service is par excellence. If the UK remains, one of the real goals should be to ensure Her Majesty’s Government is no more prescriptive or excessive in implementing regulation that its counterparts in Berlin, Paris or Rome.

The EU is based on big ideas. Nick Robinson’s BBC TV series is worth a watch to put it in historical context from the conclusion of World War II, including Britain’s long in/out relationship with ‘Europe.’

Peace and security lies at the foundation of the project. I thought awarding a Nobel peace prize to the EU and talk of preventing World War III were excessive, but it’s clear that cross border co-operation, economic competition and trade and investment help to prevent physical conflict. Beyond the single market, activities like peacekeeping missions, international aid and involvement in the Iran nuclear talks are important chapters of the EU story too.

Some may think we should focus on our little island, but an EU without the UK to face up to Putin’s Russia to the East, economic crisis in the Mediterranean countries and security and humanitarian disasters in the south is not a recipe for sustainability.

The EU – or at least its leaders and structures – certainly have a lot to answer for. The slow and meandering response to the Eurozone crisis as well as the conflicts and humanitarian disasters on its borders are hardly assets for the Stronger In brigade. But that is an argument to make international institutions stronger, not weaker by breaking up the club and sailing back to our island state.

The free movement of capital, goods, services, ideas and people remains a big, bold idea, if not one without consequences. It has, of course, been immigration which has dominated this referendum campaign.

The Brexit debate has become a substitute for the national immigration debate we’ve never allowed ourselves. The numbers are part of it. But point out that net migration is higher from outside the EU, or that immigrants contribute more than they take from the tax and benefits system or that the NHS would collapse, and you are met with blank faces. You’ll be quickly told that, in today’s version of ‘some of my best friends are black’ they don’t mean the nurse who cared for their sick mother, the polish barista at the coffee shop or the Greek bloke with whom they play football.

It’s striking how many people of BME background who appear on EU Ref TV debates and the like will basically tell the presenter that they want the drawbridge pulled up now they’re inside.

There is no question that immigration has practical consequences that are felt in terms of housing, health and education. Planning the provision of public services has become harder – and more controversial – in some places. It can have a negative impact on social cohesion in some areas, but Birmingham certainly feels – on the whole – like a city that is not only comfortable with immigration, but knows it is booming because, not in spite, of diversity.

If I’m honest, I don’t understand all the concerns over immigration on a rationale, intellectual level. There are issues of identity, as well as wanting to get back to some mythical moment of “norm” and a desire to ‘stop the world, I want to get off’. Whisper it, but there is deep seated racism out there too.

In common with others working in a highly urban environment who are white, professional, middle class (by profession and earnings, if not background), liberal and who did not have the vote in the last European Referendum, I positively embrace immigration and many features of the European project and globalisation. But, we have to better understand the concerns and set out a clearer vision for a country that will thrive, not be threatened, by free movement.

If the referendum can capture the attention of my six year old, surely we owe it to the next generation to lift the level of debate and make sure we arm ourselves with as many facts as possible.

For my part, I’ll be voting Remain. I’ll be marking my cross in the full knowledge of the pitfalls and problems of the EU, but nevertheless with passion and conviction. I hope, dear (non-postal voting) reader, you find all the facts you need before next Thursday and have the confidence to do the same.

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