Sometimes the rush of the commenentariat to express opinions about contemporary events can seem cynical and ill considered. But I was impressed by two articles which must have been written as almost instant reactions to the tragic murder of Jo Cox, one by Alex Massie in the Spectator and one by Poly Toynbee in the Guardian. I felt that both writers spoke for me in expressing what I was thinking myself.
The mainstream Brexit referendum campaign has been fought on the ground of immigration and hostility to foreigners. Demagogues from the right and centre right have unleashed the crudest and basest of emotions in a cynical and irresponsible pitch to get their vote out.
The depth of the cynicism was exemplified by Michael Howard on BBC Breakfast yesterday, saying that it was a “fact” that Brexit would lead to a reduction in immigration. In truth the free movement of labour is not a condition of EU membership. but of the UK’s membership of the single market. The end of immigration, even were that desirable, would only be achieved by the UK not only leaving the EU but also entering an economic purdah by leaving the single market and turning our back on European trade.
Where mainstream Brexit politicians promise to end immigration, this not only stirs the pot to encourage the disadvantaged towards dark passions, blaming their woes on foreigners and migrants; but it will also inevitably lead to those promises being unfulfilled, and those who believed that immigration would be controlled will be frustrated and feel further betrayed. This is a dangerous cocktail to mix.
As Alex Massie says:
When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’
When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.
Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen.
Of course those few voices on the left who support Brexit have not been riding the same train as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, but they have totally misjudged the political context. The defining issues in British politics has become immigration and racism. Those who report back conversations on the doorstep from Labour voters who intend to vote Leave are not saying that these party supporters are against the EU due to high falutin’ arguments about parliamentary sovereignty or fishery policy. The issue leading most of them to reject the party’s advice over the EU is frankly all about race and hostility to migrants. Relatively marginal left intellectuals, small socialist groups and a handful of small, specialist unions are unable to make any substantive difference to the direction of travel of the Brexit juggernaut. They are like a fly riding on the back of an Ox, no one sees anything but the Ox.
Those who delude themselves that Brexit will lead to a split in the Conservative Party and a political realignment that will benefit the left and lead to a fight against austerity need to look at the reality. A racist, demagogic, populist Brexit campaign has opened the door not for the left, but the grimmest and ugliest resurgence of nationalist politics, where reason is buried in a red mist of anger. Do they believe that Brexit will lead to political chaos? It already has, with a rise in racist hate crime, and a lovely, kind, compassionate social democrat MP lying dead in her own blood at the feet of a fascist murderer bellowing “Britain First”.
The raw emotion with which the Leave campaign is seeking to discredit any balanced evaluation of the economic and social risks of Brexit is utilising rage and sense of betrayal against the very idea of reason and rationality in politics.
If you thought that a “Lexit” campaign could gain any traction, you were wrong, and you have not being paying attention to events in the real world. We are staring into the abyss, and now is the time for all of the left and the centre left to unite with the mainstream of the trade union movement to get out the vote for Remain.