Notes From the Margins…

In the gutter with Boris and Nigel

  • June 12, 2016
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I don’t know if you’re enjoying the referendum readers, but I can tell you that I’m not.  I can’t think of any national political process that has taken place in my lifetime that I’ve found so constantly dispiriting and depressing on an almost daily level.  It now looks at least possible that Brexit could win, despite the fact that its three most prominent representatives, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage are three of the greatest charlatans who have ever slouched across the national stage.

That these three are not simply laughed off every forum they appear on,  is one level a testament to to the biliously rancid nationalism that is spreading across the country at the moment.  Never mind how often these three lie almost every time they open their mouths, and smoothly oil the wheels of racism.  Let them  attribute  Barack Obama’s support of the EU to his Kenyan ancestry, or warn of a mass influx of 76 million Turks.  Let them tell British women that the  EU has endangered their security by allowing refugee ‘rapists’ into the country.

Such statements should be shameful, but in the current debased climate they are entirely normal, and even work in Brexit’s favour.  Every lie, every note of the dog whistle, every nudge nudge hint defamation of Johnny Foreigner  only makes these three Pied Pipers stronger, as they promise to ‘take back control’ – from a coalition of nations that Britain entered into voluntarily, as they promise ‘independence’ – from the European ’empire.’

It’s now clear that dangerously large sections of the British public, in the end, just can’t stand to share their country with foreigners.   Of course there are other ideas driving the Brexit process, but this is the big one, the driving passion that has dominated this ghoulish process   Let’s not kid ourselves that most ordinary members of the public go around worrying about.’EU red tape’ or ‘bureaucrats from Brussels’.   And as for ‘sovereignty’ – this is only a popular issue insofar as the lack of sovereignty is seen as an inability to ‘control our borders’, deport ‘foreign criminals’ etc.

Is Brexit a Trump-like rebellion of the disenfranchised against the political elite – and the detested Cameron in particular?  Maybe, up to a point, if you put aside the fact that the Tory Party’s divisions over Europe are essentially a quarrel between different sections of the ‘elite.’  No, this is ultimately about public ‘concerns’ over immigration – concerns driven by fear, prejudice and misinformation that have been whipped up relentlessly for decades by the media and the British political class.

Now we’re reaping those fruits, and boy, do they taste bitter.   In 1919 Colonel Charles Repington, a former British intelligence officer and an opponent of the Channel Tunnel, warned that the construction of a tunnel would lead to ‘the loss of our insularity and the easy access of shoals of aliens upon our shores’.  Repington was particularly worried that these ‘shoals’ would impregnate British women and ‘Latinize’ the national ‘stock.’

Brexit is a 21st century expression of this same desire for ‘insularity. ‘  Its Major Evans-Gordon and the British Brothers League, Enoch Powell and. Thatcher’s ‘swamping’ all distilled into the cheekie  chappie ex-stockbroker Nigel Farage.  In a country where too many people have come to regard immigrants  as parasites, intruders, criminals and terrorists, who give nothing, contribute nothing and take everything that ‘we’ have, the EU is evil empire that lets in too many immigrants, and leaving  it  offers the possibility – however remote in practice – that immigration can be stopped.

The result is a political phenomenon that represents everything that I fiind despicable about the British and the English in particular when they act collectively  – chauvinism, xenophobia, thinly-veiled racism, nativism, and selfishness.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t regard a Remain campaign led by Cameron and Osborne as a plus to put against that minus.   Nor do I see the European Union as a bastion or guarantor of progressive values.  But I have to choose between the Brexit version of Britishness or Englishness and the EU’s  admittedly truncated and increasingly debauched version of internationalism, it’s no contest – I’m voting in. .

I know that the Lexit campaign would like us all to embrace a wider movement of solidarity and internationalism that extends beyond Europeanism, and if that was a realistic choice, then I would choose it.  But in practice, it isn’t.  I accept many of the Lexit criticisms of the EU, even though I think some of them are overstated.   For instance, I think that Lexit – like Brexit – has a tendency to portray the EU as much more powerful than it actually is, and too easily overlooks the fact that EU policy – on refugees for example – is dictated largely by its most powerful member states.

I also find it crudely reductionist to describe the EU as if it were nothing more than a ‘bosses’ club’ that exists solely for the ruthless exploitation of the working class.  That the EU can be ruthless is not in doubt, as in the case of Greece for example – though once again it was the weight of particular states and the absence of pan-European resistance that made that outcome possible.

But the European Union is also the largest and – until recently – the most successful attempt in history to transcend the bordered world that came into existence in the first half of the twentieth century.   Those who underestimate or downplay the significance of that achievement seem too willing to forget the destructive history of European statebuilding and interstate competition  that brought about two world wars and countless others.

For sure, that outcome has to some extent been predicated on the ‘hardening’ of  the EU’s new ‘external’ borders and its catastrophic response to undocumented migration from outside the EU,  but freedom of movement within the EU, however much it serves the interests of ‘the bosses’, has also allowed millions of working people the opportunity to change and improve their lives and live outside their own borders.

Many of these people can be found living all over the UK.  What is wrong with them being here?  Why should I support a movement that essentially despises them or regards them as nothing but a problem?  Would I like to see that same freedom of movement, and the mechanisms that made it possible, extended to other countries beyond the European Union?  Yes I certainly would.

But Brexit obviously has no such agenda.  Cameron and Osborne clearly don’t have it either and prefer to bray about ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ than talk about international solidarity or opening borders.

But    Brexit, far more than Remain,  is an explicit rejection of any notion of transnational solidarity, cooperation and internationalism.  It rejects Fortress Europe only because it wants to fortify the UK even more than it already is, and these objectives are only likely to debase our political culture even further than they already have.

In this context, Lexit’s call for a ‘real’ internationalism sounds to me like a pretty chorus trying to sing Kumbaya at a gathering of satanists.   The Lexiters, like the Brexiters,  would like to demolish the entire structure of  the European Union, for very different reasons admittedly,  but the former don’t seem to me to have clear idea of what would replace it except a great deal of optimistic speculation, and – as far as I can see – no real power to replace it with anything.

Do I have any idea of what will happen if Remain wins?   No, not really.  I don’t regard a Remain victory as something to celebrate – except that it would represent a defeat for Brexit – and a demonstration that the British public rejects the shrunken, inward-looking and xenophobic nationalism that drives the Leave campaign.

That would be something to celebrate.   Apart from that, I think that the Tory party would definitely be weakened whether Remain wins or loses – the divisions have been too sharp and vicious for the contenders to miraculously converge.   On a European level, the same challenges will remain that already exist; struggles against austerity; against Fortress Europe; for greater democracy within the EU.

Can the EU be reformed, as Yanis Varoufakis and others insist it can be?  Perhaps not.   And if we get a situation where a coalition of leftwing governments decide it can’t be, and want to leave or create a different kind of union, then I know what side I’ll be on.

I find it touching that so many Lexiters who once had nothing good to say about bourgeois democracy have suddenly rediscovered their faith in parliament, if only to counterpoint it with the EU, which they now say can’t be reformed, whereas in this country we can get rid of our own government in an election.

Well we can – in theory.  But in practice we’ve had Tory governments for more than thirty years now, broken by three rightwing Labour governments.  Even after four years of one of the most extremist governments in British history, after food banks, massive cuts, work assessments, forced academisation and so much else,   the public voted in a Tory government again.

Of course that could change – conservatism isn’t written into any country’s DNA – but I don’t see how a Brexit driven by the hard right is going to make it any less so.  In fact I think the opposite is more likely to be true, and that the political forces that brought about our ‘independence’ will be strengthened and vindicated.   So I may be pessimistic, but more than that I’m alarmed, outraged and horrified by the grim, nihilistic jingoism that is driving this process closer to that outcome.

If we leave, it will be Brexit, not Lexit, wot  wun it.   As the English fans in Marseille sang ‘ Fuck off Europe, we’re all voting out’.

They might be, but not all of us are, John Bull will never get my vote, even if he has blonde hair and holds a pint in his hand.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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