I wrote in February about how the EU referendum ‘debate’ would be a clusterfuck of ignorance and prejudice. That required no particular insight – it was always going to be that way – yet I still find myself surprised and dismayed by just how dreadful the discourse has been. Last night’s ITV debate, which found Boris Johnson essentially parroting Daily Express headlines, was astonishingly grim to watch. It was particular breathtaking to see Johnson accusing the Remain campaign of being ‘Project Fear’ literally moments after claiming that the EU was flooding our streets with ‘terrorists and murderers’ (something which, incidentally, isn’t true.)
(photo by @nikvestberg)
I think most people have known all along how they’ll vote in the referendum, even if they can’t quite admit it; I think some can’t admit it because they know, deep down, that they’re voting based on kneejerk prejudice rather than any informed opinion. These people tend to adopt a ‘plague on both your houses’ stance, complaining that both sides can’t be trusted and it’s difficult to know who to believe. At face value this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable complaint but then you consider that it has never been easier to educate yourself about issues you are interested in. On Channel 4 news the other day a teenager began speaking about how she had felt uninformed but then went online and found an abundance of information, not produced by either campaign, which struck her as impartial. Now, I realise and accept that not everyone will have easy access to the internet or be particularly adept at using it but I also think if you’re self-aware enough to say ‘I don’t trust the campaigns, I just want some impartial information’, you then have an obligation to make an effort to find that information. It takes seconds to find descriptions of the structure and powers of the EU. The European Parliament offers a series of factsheets on various aspects of the EU. This LRB article on why leaving the EU would be enormously complicated offers a good, relatively brief, overview of its powers in the context of this referendum. Organisations like the BBC and Wikipedia have put together simple overviews of the EU. The entire point of a referendum (and a big part, I think, of why they are invariably disastrous) is that no-one is going to come along and hand you a 5-page dossier explaining the ‘right’ way to vote. It’s up to us and it requires a bit of work.
As a general rule of thumb, if it sounds utterly absurd it’s probably not true. The EU has not banned kettles. The EU does not ban bananas being sold in bunched of more than three, as a trip to your nearest grocers or supermarket will confirm. The profit margin of the UK fishing industry has increased under the Common Fisheries Policy, in contrast with the tabloid stories of rampaging foreigners stealing ‘British fish’ and destroying boats. At every turn we should seek out the truth of what we hear and aren’t sure about; importantly, we should seek to understand, rather than seek out facile memes which merely stoke our prejudices as happened too often in the Scottish independence referendum.
One of the more unexpected developments in the ‘debate’ has been the tactic of people like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and even Nigel Farage to blame any and all problems with the NHS, wages, immigration policy, housing etc on the EU (and specifically on immigration) and suggest that all these would improve if we left. These extremely right-wing politicians have suddenly discovered that they’re actually rather left-wing, wanting to increase NHS spending, increase wages, relax our immigration policy, build more housing. It’s mendacious in the extreme. Let’s be clear here: they could do all of these things now. The reason they haven’t is that they don’t want to. They are no friends of the NHS and the Tories have presided over “the smallest increase in (NHS) spending for any political party’s period in office since the second world war”. Only last year Boris Johnson was demanding a UK opt-out from EU employment laws, “stopping EU social and employment law imposing costs on business”. His government has presided over restricting access to employment tribunals, freezing maternity and sick pay and a draconian crackdown on trade unions. It has tightened immigration laws based not on evidence but on cheap party political gain, with an entirely arbitrary promise to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’, absurd restrictions on international students and pointless and cruel promises to deport non-EU migrants earning less than £35,000. The government’s extention of ‘right to buy’ to tenants in housing associations, meanwhile, is an ill-thought out disaster and its housing policy generally is predicated on keeping private housing costs high rather than investing in affordable homes. If anyone thinks Johnson, Gove and co will row back on any of this post-Brexit, I have some magic beans I think they might be interested in.
The common foundation to this line of ‘attack’ is, of course, that the UK is beseiged by immigrants and cannot cope. Yet what matters aren’t scary big numbers but investment, population density, resource use and consumption patterns. The vast majority of the UK isn’t built on, London’s population density compares favourably to other big cities while the UK, one of the richest countries in the world, isn’t even in the top 100 when it comes to population growth. We are not bursting at the seams.
To be blunt, most people have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about when they speak about immigration. The *entire* foreign-born population in the UK increased by less than 5 million in 21 years, and 3 million of these people went to London. Approximately 12% of the UK population was born outside of the UK, a percentage which puts us towards the bottom of the OECD chart (and most of this population is found in London). Most migrants only come here for less than 2 years. Migration most certainly has a positive impact on our economy and due to our population demographics, we’re going to need more of it. Most evidence suggests that migrants do not cause unemployment of UK citizens and have minimal-to-no impact on wages (government policy is far, far more important for these matters).
Far from being ‘scared’ to have a discussion about immigration, our politics and media has for too long been complacent in challenging pernicious myths (that’s putting it generously – clearly many have been strongly pushing these myths themselves). Anyone who speaks to you about the NHS or housing or a ‘strain on public services’ without referencing government investment and (of particular relevance to this debate) government cuts is seeking to mislead you. It’s time we grew up when it came to immigration. It is not a problem, we do control our borders and leaving the EU will not reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’ (and neither should we want it to).
Some people have spoken of ‘lexit’, as if the left could benefit from leaving the EU and have some say over the aftermath. This, as some of these people are now recognising, is a myth. There is no such thing as ‘lexit’. A vote to leave the EU will not help the refugees trying to enter Fortress Europe. A vote to leave the EU will most definitely bolster the likes of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, John Mann, the EDL, the BNP and every two-bit ‘I’m not racist’ in the country who moans about ‘uncontrolled immigration’ and repeats drivel about the EU banning kettles. It will have a material impact on the lives of thousands of migrants in the UK. Racists and reactionaries are by FAR the dominant forces seeking to leave the EU and you can’t separate yourself from it. Perhaps you are aware of that and still want to leave. Ok – but please do so based on some semblance of fact and not because of the drivel which has characterised this debate. As Jeremy Corbyn has argued, the EU is far from perfect but right here, right now, one option is clearly far worse than the other. Vote remain.