It wasn’t about the EU


eu referendum

The EU referendum is a strange beast. The more I listen to people talking about it, the more I realise that it’s not really about the EU at all. It is actually about our attitude to change.

The people behind the drive to get out of the EU are the Tory right wing. They want to wind the clock back to the era when Britain had an empire on which the sun never set. That’s why they use language like “taking back control” and “let’s make Britain great again”.

They don’t want the changes that the modern world is bringing. Instead they want to jump in a time machine and go back to the 1950s when we had buttered scones and tea on the village lawn whilst watching a game of cricket. When our leaders were men with partings and severe suits who had been educated at Eton. And the only foreigners were the fuzzy-wuzzies that we habitually beat at cricket or in colonial wars because we had guns and they had sharp sticks.

Their over-riding sentiment is that we have had too much change. We want to go back to the way it was.

And if that thought had stayed with the Tory right wing, we would not be in the mess we are now. The far right is balanced by the far left and the huge squidgy middle. Politics usually finds a balance on the sea-saw where those with extreme views are in the minority.

But something strange has happened. The pace of change has increased dramatically over the last few years, particularly because of immigration. Some parts of the UK have seen a sudden and noticeable increase in immigrants from Eastern Europe.

In 2001, there were about 61,000 people working in Great Britain who were born in Poland. By the 2011 census, this had risen to over 655,000. Some estimates say there are now more than a million Polish born people living in the UK.

That rapid increase is difficult for some people to accept. It feels overwhelming. Some UK-born citizens are feeling as if they are foreigners in their own country.

For them there is too much change, and too quickly.

Now, a rational person would point out that we need immigration to redress our ageing population and to boost our economy. We might ask for tolerance and understanding.

But that cuts no ice with people who have seen their communities turn into little Poland. Their world has changed too fast.

And so the Tory right wing managed to put pressure on David Cameron to hold a referendum about EU membership. Their goal was about sovereignty and turning the clock back to the days of empire, but let’s be honest, much of the public really wanted to turf the Poles out.

The referendum itself was a weird affair. We didn’t actually talk much about the what the European Parliament does. At some point we should have had the Monty Python “What have the Romans ever done for us?” discussion about the EU. Then we could have talked about workers’ rights, food hygiene standards, tariff-free trade, safety standards, protection of the environment.

Instead all we got was a lie about leaving the EU would save us £350 million a week which we could spend on the NHS. We got soundbites about the EU being unelected and preventing the UK from exercising control of its own laws. Which is really frustrating because the European Parliament is elected and most of the laws and standards established by the EU are things that we would have done in UK law anyway.

That’s because the referendum was actually about change. The Remain campaign had to lobby for the status quo. Their campaign had to be about the denial of change. Their message was “look at where we are now! Isn’t it lovely?”

The Leave campaign, on the other hand, could campaign for change. They were going to make Britain great again. Put more money in your pocket. Have new laws on immigration. Change the weather so that it didn’t rain so often.

All Remain could offer was more of the same. Leave promised something new.

And a large chunk of the public saw the vote as a way to say that they were not happy with the status quo. If you read the newspaper articles and blogs, one thing is very very clear. Many of the Leave voters were not voting against the EU. They were voting against the establishment. The referendum was their chance to stick the boot into politicians and bureaucrats.

Don’t ask us to vote for the status quo. The status quo is rubbish.

There is a massive inequality between richest and poorest.

There are huge sections of the population who don’t feel that they are being listened to.

The elderly feel as if they are being marginalised.

Austerity hurts.

Our public services are falling to pieces.

Politicians are failing us.

These feelings are very real and genuine, but here’s the grim truth. Leaving the EU will not change any of that for the better. In fact, it will almost certainly make it worse.

Let’s be entirely clear about this. There will be economic pain before we see a financial benefit from leaving the EU. If we ever see a financial benefit. It will take decades to reproduce the trade agreements we have built up over the past 43 years of EU membership.

And in the meantime we will see a falling pound, job losses, a dip in consumer confidence, higher prices leading to inflation. It’s not project fear. It’s the harsh reality of giving up a trade agreement which was actually very good for us.

The EU vote probably doesn’t mean a change in immigration. The Leave campaign are backpedalling on that promise as they know that we need immigration and we almost certainly won’t be able to have tariff-free trade with the EU without accepting free movement of people.

The EU referendum doesn’t mean taking back control. Right now the choice of who should be the country’s Prime Minister – and therefore the direction that the Government takes – is being decided by around 150,000 conservative party members from a shortlist drawn up by 329 Conservative MPs.

Does that sound like a democratic decision after we had a referendum where more than 30 million people voted?

Here is the irony of the EU referendum. The narrow majority – 52% to 48% – voted for the only option on the ballot paper which was a vote for change.

What they may not have realised is that it was a vote for a change for the worse.

How do we pick ourselves up from this one?

There ought to be a middle course. A way of expressing what we want that the majority of people could get behind. We need to admit that the status quo isn’t great, but jumping out of the EU isn’t necessarily the change that we need.

I would like to see a country where:

We are both patriotic and international

Where we fight to redress the inequalities between the richest and poorest

Where everyone has a voice

Where we have a strong economy which leads to good jobs for all who want them

Where we keep our public spending under control without punitive austerity measures

Where we listen to people’s concerns and do something about them

Where the politics of the soundbite is thrown in a very deep and smelly hole, along with those who have lied to us.

Where we tolerate people from different backgrounds, but we also understand the tensions and the fears that can be caused by rapid growth in immigration.

The trouble is that there wasn’t a box on the ballot paper where I could have voted for this. It almost certainly means staying in the EU and changing other parts of our political system.

The other problem is that I don’t see any political party or leader at the moment who is capable of delivering on these things.


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