By Ian Drummond
For as long as I can remember politicians have been saying not only that we need to have a debate about immigration but that the debate has been supressed until now. The latter part of which can’t possibly be true the second let alone tenth or twentieth time it is robotically repeated, yet adds to a sense of sullen alienation around the question while doing nothing to clarify or solve it.
But whether as a lazy commonplace or cynical pandering, it surely cannot be credible ever again to allege that Britain has not talked about immigration or that the case against has been gagged. Instead, it must surely now seem not such a bad thing to people of goodwill across the land if we never again have a “national conversation” like the one we have over the EU referendum.
A toxic swamp of xenophobia, racism and dishonesty has characterised the official Leave campaign, culminating in Farage’s disgusting Breaking Point poster that was so quickly shown near identical to actual Nazi propaganda. Right wing arguments have predictably dominated a referendum held as a vote by the public on an exceptionally vitriolic civil war in a Tory Party that 77% of that public did not vote for.
It was the rise of UKIP and harrying by the Thatcherite Tory hard right that forced Cameron’s hand in calling for a referendum in the first place. And it is only now happening because of a Tory majority smaller than the number of Tory victories the electoral commission are now investigating over serious allegations of electoral fraud.
Along with its murky origins the referendum has been structured in a reactionary way. EU immigrants who will be more directly affected than anyone else have been seemed unfit to vote on their own future, even though those who lived in Scotland were deemed fit to vote on the future existence of the UK. There will in fact be local councillors, which EU nationals can become, who will be deemed unfit to vote in the most important poll in British politics. And anyone born between June 23 and September 18 1998 in Scotland will have been deemed old enough to pass judgement on the existence of Britain almost two years ago but an incompetent minor on the issue of whether it stays in the EU now.
The debate on both sides of the Tory civil war has been dire. Cameron invoking the threat of World War III to boost Remain rang hollow after he spent several years not ruling out the possibility he would be for Leave himself, if the renegotiation wasn’t mean enough to migrants on benefits for him to sell to the Tory right. Boris sat on the fence longer than anyone else and left his decision to a day after all the others, the better to be the main headline for that day, only to embrace the worst excesses of the Leave side, comparing the EU to Hitler and insinuating that Obama was for Remain because he’s anti-British because he’s black.
This is the context of the referendum and would be that of Brexit were it to happen, where no Greek style struggle against EU imposed austerity has yet taken place but ultra-Thatcherite forces have turned a referendum on the EU into a referendum on migrants. Cynically attempting to deflect anger and alienation created by their own policies of decades long deindustrialisation and union-busting followed by six of the worst years for the economy and human misery onto some of the most vulnerable people in the country and the world.
And it was out of this sewer of hate that a fascist emerged to murder a Member of Parliament. It is now certain that Thomas Mair was politically motivated and not merely mentally ill in his vile murder of Jo Cox; giving his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court removed all doubt. It is not credible that the timing of his foul crime, though a lone wolf action, was mere coincidence.
Like Walter Rathenau, Yitzhak Rabin and Chris Hani, Jo Cox was murdered by a far right fanatic at a time of political ferment across her whole society, with the wider hard right playing an outsized role in that ferment. If this is not to be a sign of things to come and society is to pull back from the brink, Britain First and its mainstream amplifiers – Farage, Boris, the Sun and co – need to be but back in their box, firmly and fast.
The argument that this is not the time and manner in which we should leave, whatever the many correct points left Leave campaigners make about the EU itself, is now overwhelming. Furthermore Yanis Varoufakis’s position that an unplanned, despair-driven, right-led collapse of the EU would strengthen the far right has been borne out in practice in the first potential splinter from the edifice. Instead the first port of call for socialists and democrats must be to stay in and fight, hard, for major reforms to break the grip of an undemocratic bureaucracy and a recessionary economic policy that is driving the bitterness and disintegration we oppose.
The idea that such a struggle is so doomed from the outset that we must vote for Brexit now, despite a real world context that no leftist could welcome, is a counsel of despair. On multiple levels.
Firstly the idea that this is a “once in a generation” vote and Remain gives the EU elite cart blanche to do what they like with us can be answered in one word – Scotland. A narrow In vote does not, on the recent evidence, mean the Out side see the matter as finished. That may be no good thing given the tone of the Leave campaign, but it does mean their scare stories about being forced to join the Euro and so on are for the birds. And that a future Corbyn government would have considerable room for manoeuvre in any conflicts with Brussells.
Further the idea that only a Leave vote could create the Tory crisis needed to bring down the government is misplaced. Except in the almost inconceivable scenario of a crushing Remain victory Cameron is probably toast anyway, seen as a traitor by his own side most as most of the Tory base will vote Leave. While the party of government, if Britain votes Remain, will have just voted differently to the public and likely still elect a leader who did the same. In any case the Tory crisis has already begun, from the bungled budget to the Panama Papers to the gathering storm of the election spending scandal; and the two warring sides are not likely to come back together harmoniously whoever wins.
The replacement of this vicious and pathetic Tory rump by a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn would be electrifying for the left and progressive forces across Europe. The loss of Britain would be a traumatic event for all the pushers of austerity and neoliberalism around the world.
It is not British chauvinism but plain fact that Britain is a much bigger, richer, more powerful state than Greece. We are not in the single currency and would not be negotiating massive debts with the EU institutions. If we were to try and chart a more socially just and economically viable course at home and fight for change in the way the EU was run, we should not think that we would be crushed just because Greece was, when we would have incomparably more leverage.
And we would have allies. In Spain just 3 days after the British referendum there will be a general election which Podemos, now running with a wider left alliance, could win, and form a left-left government with the Socialist Party that they have overtaken. If on the other hand the Socialists enter a coalition to prop up the hard right current governing PP they will face the fate of PASOK and Podemos will likely consolidate as an even stronger left opposition and future government
In Portugal there is already a social democratic government dependent on Communist and Left Bloc votes, and in Ireland a whole range of anti-austerity forces have advanced at the last election while the traditional parties of government have been reduced to rumps, in the absence of any UKIP-style right wing populist breakthrough. (Ireland also, incidentally, makes a good case against Brexit, as the return of a hard border could harm the peace process. Northern Ireland is in fact the most pro-Remain part of the UK, despite major support for Brexit among sectarian loyalists.)
If despite all efforts, work with allies across Europe, and the inspiration that Corbyn’s election would represent across the continent, it proved both impossible to reform the edifice of the EU or even to renationalise the railways while still a member, different conditions would be created. The conditions for a left exit, unlike today’s.
In such an exit not only would immigration not be the driving issue but there should be a guarantee (not given by this Leave campaign) that such an exit, forced on us, would not prejudice the rights of EU citizens living here. But such an exit would not be the only possible outcome of a left government’s approach to the EU, and far from the ideal one. In the struggle for democracy and against austerity, we might actually win.
But we will be less likely to see, and take part in, the various struggles that a Corbyn victory would unleash if there is a vote for the Brexit that is currently on the table. The stamp of approval on a racist campaign that doesn’t deserve to win, the messy divorce negotiations with Brussels, the recessionary hit to the economy in a right led political context, and the likely re-emergence of the Scottish question which would splinter the working class and spell disaster the economies of all parts of this island – none of these immediate consequences of a Leave vote would increase the likelihood of someone as anti-racist as Jeremy Corbyn coming to power.
Instead in this referendum we must take the necessary, if in itself insufficient, step of voting Remain. And do so as a national revolt against the racism and even fascism that the Brexit campaign has unleashed.