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.
Before the election last year I wrote about the problem of ‘politics as comic book’, a ‘twilight’ world of good and bad, right and wrong, conducted by fighting fog because relatively few people had any idea what they were talking about. We’ve long known, for example, that the public remains stubbornly misinformed about issues like welfare and immigration.
In some respects the rise of ‘populism’ in recent years takes advantage of this, offering simple certainties in an age which seems frighteningly precarious and complex: your problems are caused by immigration, by the European Union, by Westminster, by ‘bankers’. This populism has largely been associated with smaller parties, contrasted with the ‘responsible’ and ‘mainstream’ larger parties who had a duty to combat it. This started to change with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn here in the UK and now Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump in the USA: these are politicians who are presented by those who identify as ‘moderate’ and ‘reasonable’ as offering simple, populist responses to complex problems.
Yet it is increasingly unavoidable that this is little more than self-delusion. What these people like to call the ‘centre-ground’ of politics is conducted in that hinterland of unreality where no-one really has any idea what they’re talking about but everyone pretends otherwise. It’s clear, for example, that much of our politics is addressed at the myths around welfare and immigration rather than the reality. This has found strong, grim expression in the discussion around the referendum on the European Union.
It’s obvious that public awareness of the European Union, on the basic level of what it is and what it does, is woeful. In a survey last year less only 27% of respondents in the UK could correctly answer three relatively simple questions on the EU – if people have no idea of the number of members, the chances that they have any understanding of how laws are made or even what the bodies of the EU are aren’t high. Yet, as with (and not separate from) welfare and immigration, strong feelings and perceptions of the EU have come to dominate our political discourse with little regard as to how informed or otherwise they may be.
So it was that we ended up with yesterday’s bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister trumpeting an improved ‘deal’ for the UK in the EU and asking that people vote to remain in it as a consequence. The two centrepieces of this deal underlined that this was about responding to ignorance rather than any practical concerns: a ‘red card’ veto over ‘unwanted legislation’ and an ’emergency brake’ on ‘migrant benefits’.
The ‘red card’ is clearly aimed at those who believe the much-renowned ‘faceless bureaucrats’ at the EU impose legislation on the EU, “like some distant imperial ruler legislating for its colonial subjects.” Aside from not even beginning to address the lack of education on EU decision-making or, for example, the distinction between the EU and the European Court of Human Rights, the ‘red card’ basically already exists. That’s a lot of noise mad about nothing much at all.
The hoopla over ‘migrant benefits’ gets, I think, a lot closer to the actual ‘concerns’ many have regarding the EU – concerns based on ignorance, xenophobia and just plain racism about ‘uncontrolled immigration’ and migrants ‘coming over here and taking our jobs/benefits’. Suffice to say, the available information doesn’t support this being a problem at all. The data is sketchy but suggests that:
EU migrants make up only a small proportion of the overall benefits caseload. They accounted for 2.5% of benefits the DWP administered in 2014 – mostly out-of-work benefits – in 2014, and 7% of tax credits, based on the HMRC definition discussed above.
The DWP analysis says EU migrants on “in-work” benefits cost the taxpayer £530m in 2013. That represents a modest 1.6% of the year’s total tax credit bill.
The vast majority of EU migrants living in the UK are in employment, while EU migration has been found to have “no statistically significant effects” on employment for those born in the UK (and in fact contributes billions to the UK economy). I’m also aware from personal experience that many, even on the left, are completely unaware that people living in the EU can’t just come to the UK and start claiming benefits. There are conditions, and the benefits they can claim are limited. It’s also the case, of course, the people from the UK are resident across the EU and some of them claim benefits.
The scare about EU migrants claiming benefits, then, feeds into the demonisation of welfare and immigration in general. We might not expect David Cameron to address these, given how well the Tories did out of inflaming English nationalism in May 2015. Could we expect the ‘moderate’ wing of Labour to do so? Of course not:
In claiming this as a ‘substantial win..for Britain’, Chuka Umunna reinforces the harmful myths around the EU and throws migrants under the bus. This comes after Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall spoke of wanting to restrict EU benefits in the Labour leadership election (contrast with Corbyn’s rhetoric). These are intelligent people who presumably identify as ‘progressive’, perhaps even left-wing. I find it hard to believe they aren’t aware that they’re responding to concerns which are largely baseless, and flirting with deeply unpleasant sentiments as they do so. Yet this is what seems to pass for ‘centre-ground’ politics – fighting fog to avoid being seen to challenge ‘ordinary people’, who must be deferred to always (except when they believe in things which punch upwards rather than downwards, such as nationalisation and wealth taxes).
Ignorance about the European Union isn’t, of course, confined to those who view it negatively. The incoherence of the SNP’s position, demanding ‘independence’ and ‘all decisions affecting Scotland, made in Scotland’ while being uncritically pro-EU, remains largely unchallenged. Amongst Scottish nationalists I would assert that much support for the EU comes not from a deep understanding of it (or a belief in countries working together in unions), but rather as a response to anti-EU sentiment being associated with right-wing English nationalism. This may be more benign than anti-EU sentiment but it is no less based in fog.
The SNP, of course, have made exploiting many people’s ignorance about politics into an artform. Whether it be going to war to prevent Westminster from implementing much the same law on fox-hunting as Holyrood did, constantly misrepresenting (read: lying about) EVEL while not even bothering to vote on the Housing and Planning Bill (EVEL’s first use) or presenting economic plans largely idential to Labour’s and framing it as ‘anti-austerity vs Red Tories’, the SNP understand that what is going on in Scottish politics has little foundation in fact and much in nationalist rhetoric. We saw this perfectly illustrated yesterday, when Scottish Labour called the SNP’s bluff on austerity and announced proposals to use the Scottish Rate of Income Tax to invest in public services. The SNP line on the SRIT has been consistent since Swinney’s December budget: that it’s not a ‘progressive’ tax and would hit the poor more than the wealthy. This is plain incorrect when it comes to SRIT as is and it’s even more wrong about Labour’s proposal. Yet the SNP knows that the faithful need lines and so it dutifully pumped them out: by making plans to protect the poorest income tax-payers, it was acknowledging the tax wasn’t progressive (a circular argument if ever there was one); the rebate was unworkable and possibly ‘illegal’; the tax rise was a ‘unionist’ tax to pay for Tory policies.
It was this last claim which most exposed the utterly daft, if deeply sad, state of Scottish politics, unleashing lots of unhinged ranting about ‘unionism’. Scotland doing things differently was apparently a ‘nightmare’ scenario:
Bearing in mind that public spending in Scotland is consistently higher per capita than in the rest of the UK, asking people to pay a bit more for more spending seems a no-brainer. Especially in a context where the SNP has, for example effectively cut Council Tax with its 8 year freeze, leading to a crisis in local government, while using the funds to ensure free university tuition while cutting student support for the poorest (something the SNP, again, condemned at Westminster, safe in the knowledge few would know they had done much the same). Clearly ‘doing things differently’ in Scotland is fine when it comes to enacting policies people like but when it comes to paying for it, it’s unacceptable. This is because we have the bizarre situation where, for many, the SNP get the credit for everything perceived as better than the status quo in England/Wales, but anything difficult is judged against an imaginary independent Scotland. Scotland is currently ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ to do things differently because once the country is’independent’ it will be able to do everything better. The SNP has, of course, never actually said how it would pay for doing things differently: its White Paper offered a corporation tax cut, it is cutting air passenger duty and, prior to is general election plans proposing ‘anti-austerity’ plans largely identical to Labour’s ‘austerity-lite’, it proposed more borrowing. The latter is, of course, a valid option but one which again relied on a lack of any realistic consideration (and again was probably inconsistent with EU membership). As Professor Wren-Lewis put it, it was “being in denial about macroeconomic fundamentals because they interfered with…politics.” If the fatuous fog of the EU ‘debate’ is infused with xenophobia and English nationalism, the Scottish variant has much the same effect of impeding informed debate.
Let’s be clear: people will support different political parties, different policies, different ideologies, for many reasons. I don’t mean to fetishise some ‘reality’ which exists in an ideology-free vacuum. There are certainly discussions and debate to be had about the European Union or spending/policies in Scotland. Yet to get to them we have to first acknowledge where we are and face the truth that what’s actually happening – the truth, as far as we can get it, of how much is spent on what, of what laws actually mean, of what governments are actually doing – is a secondary consideration. It would be tempting to accredit this to an age where ‘opinion’ has become a sacred right with no corresponding responsibility to inform oneself but this isn’t a recent development, as this excerpt from The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists shows:
If we are to have any hope of a better world we have to be able to debate and to be proved wrong. Facile assertions that challenging the perceived status quo ‘insults ordinary people’ or ‘talks down Scotland’ or ‘presumes to know better’ are little more than dangerous demagoguery. It is beholden on each of us, as far as we can, to fight the political fog and refuse to flatter that which we know to be untrue. This doesn’t mean shouting about the media attacking Corbyn or protesting outside the BBC – it means attempting to understand where power lies, how it is operated and how it can best be challenged to achieve our goals. The alternative is darkness.
It’s a grim marker of how firmly much of the left remains lodged down a nationalist rabbit hole that this week is not being widely viewed as exposing the facile incoherence at the core of much SNP rhetoric.
The dramatic events swirling around Greece have confirmed that, by most reckonings, the European Union is a more dysfunctional and less democratic union than the United Kingdom is. The ‘agreement’ reached over the weekend has been described as “one of those moments that changes everything” and has led to an upswing in left-wing criticism of the EU with demands for a vote against the “ruthless imposition of neoliberal policies across the continent” in the forthcoming UK referendum on membership. Yet despite explicit attempts by the SNP to draw parallels between the referendum in Greece and last year’s Scottish independence referendum (and thus acquire some of Syriza’s now-tarnished anti-austerity aura for itself) the party remains firmly pro-EU and continues to present Brexit as an eventually which will lead to a second indy referendum. EU membership is apparently ‘crucial to Scottish jobs and economy’ – an argument which was lumped in with ‘unionist scaremongering’ when made about the UK. As David Torrance argued in the Herald, these positions made absolutely no sense in the context of SNP rhetoric both past and present:
SNP logic is also baffling. Faced with two failing banks headquartered in Scotland, the UK Government bailed them out and although it proceeded to cut spending, successive administrations ensured the Scottish Government got a proportionately lower reduction than most other Whitehall departments. The Scottish Government has presented this as proof that the British Union is unreformable, broken beyond repair.
Yet when the EU imposes austerity on Greece so crippling that its economy starts to collapse, causing hardship the Scottish middle classes wouldn’t tolerate for longer than it took them to read the Guardian, the SNP treats it as an unfortunate mistake and urges the troika to come up with something a bit less punitive. The EU, they suggest at every turn, is capable of reform.
This again highlights the self-defeating nature of the SNP’s fixation on ‘independence’ and ‘sovereignty’, an argument which was made but rarely central during the referendum campaign. As Marxist economist Michael Roberts argued:
At best, the majority of the Scottish people will find little difference under Holyrood than under Westminster and it could be worse if a global crisis erupts again. Scotland as a small economy, dependent on multinationals for investment, still dominated by British banks and the City of London and without control of its own currency or interest rates, could face a much bigger hit than elsewhere in terms of incomes and unemployment.
So independence would not bring dramatic economic improvement to the majority of Scots; indeed, it could mean a worse situation. But then the decision on independence is not just a question of the economy and living standards. That brings us back to the issue of the Scottish and English/Welsh (and Irish) working class sticking together in the struggle against British capital. Will an independent Scottish capitalist state strengthen that in any way?
The notion that ‘Scotland’ would be an ‘independent country’ in terms of its sovereignty if it only rid itself of Westminster has always been a fantasy – a truth which this week’s developments in the EU make unavoidable. Even if Scotland were to reject EU membership, the realities of globalised capitalism and the dispersion of economic power, both within and external to nation states, mean that the issue can never be one of ‘becoming independent’ but rather a question of how to pool sovereignty and who with.
Now these are not discussions which are inherently pro-UK (and certainly not as it’s currently configured) but, rather than attempt to have them, the SNP adopt an ‘EU good, UK bad’ stance and shriek a lot about ‘Westminster’, ‘Scotland’s interests’ and ‘Scotland’s voice’. The swiftness with which ‘unionist’ has come to mean ‘enemy’ is astonishing (and not a little disturbing) and, most depressingly of all, has been widely adopted by those who identify as ‘socialists’. See this adolescent drivel from Scottish Socialist Voice last week, which uses ‘unionist’, ‘London’ and ‘Tories’ interchangeably while arguing that the left should largely ‘join together’ with the SNP.
This typifies the complete absence of any left-wing opposition to the SNP which I’ve written about previously. Nationalism has become so central to these people that they think socialists should remain quiet about falling literacy and numeracy levels, relative declines in health and education spending, falling teacher numbers, cuts to further education which have led to declining student and staff numbers, an authoritarian centralisation of police which has led to routine armed patrols and a massive increase in stop and search, proposals for a central ‘super ID’ database and guardians for every child under 18 and rising unemployment in Scotland. Indeed, it was with depressing inevitability that I noted the (rightful) uproar over the Tory plans to abolish grants for poorer students contained no mention of the SNP’s own disastrous record on this, with Scotland being “the only part of the UK where borrowing is highest among students from poorer backgrounds.”
This is a record which would shame any government, yet with the SNP it’s largely buried beneath rhetoric about the wicked Tories and cruel ‘Westmonster’. It’s a ploy the party is eager to embrace, from its rubbishing of the Smith Commission report almost the instant it was released (despite the SNP being central to its negotiation) to their recent games surrounding the Scotland Bill. The latter has been particularly egregious with the absurdity around ‘Full Fiscal Autonomy’, a policy barely mentioned by the SNP either in its manifesto or election campaign and then only in the context of being delivered ‘years’ in the future, yet now presented as a central and essential demand of ‘Scotland’s voice’ (despite most informed opinion presenting the policy as a disaster.) The utter lack of scrutiny the SNP have faced in these negotiations is underlined by the total lack of uproar over its MPs supporting an amendment from pro-life Tories to devolve abortion law to Holyrood, despite abandoning this previously and opposition from 13 Scottish women’s and human rights groups. Note that the SNP also voted with the EVIL TORIES against “appointing a group to analyse and report on the impact of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland on the Scottish economy.”
In this context of an utter lack of scrutiny it makes perfect sense that, with scandal engulfing Police Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon felt able to fly to London this week in order to discuss the SNP’s policy on fox-hunting in England and Wales. Since devolution it has long been SNP policy not to vote on matters which directly only impact on England and Wales, though their interpretation of this criteria has at times been curious (the arguments that Westminster policy on private involvement in the NHS would impact on Scotland’s NHS budget were convoluted at best, especially in the context of relative cuts to NHS Scotland’s budget implemented by the SNP). As recently as February this year, however, Nicola Sturgeon was stating that fox-hunting was something the SNP would not vote on. The last minute u-turn on this position has been breathtakingly cynical, leading to the absurd position where the SNP would vote against bringing ‘England’s law into line with Scotland by allowing hunts to flush out foxes with a pack of dogs before they are shot.’ Rather than being motivated by a sincere concern for foxes, this move was intended to increase tensions and led to this spectacular justification from Sturgeon worth quoting in full:
The third reason is essentially ‘we haven’t gotten our own way entirely and want to annoy the Tories’. That’s politics, of course, but not a particularly compelling reason to abandon a core principle of the party. The first two reasons are far more interesting: solidarity with others in the UK and the law created by Westminster being better than Scotland’s current law. These are arguments in favour of the UK! Solidarity was absolutely central to my own arguments around the referendum:
If you make this point in favour of common struggle across the UK – a common struggle which created the NHS, welfare state, trade unions, the minimum wage, formal LGB (I’m leaving out the T due to the spousal veto) equality and more – you’re liable to be met with the response that solidarity doesn’t depend on borders and we can share in struggles around the world whatever our constitutional arrangement. I find this argument rather disingenuous. While we may feel solidarity with people in Gaza, or Ukraine, or Washington, there is not much we can practically do about it. Our solidarity extends to signing some e-petitions, attending some marches, donating some money, petitioning our government and for a minority of people getting involved in specific organisations devoted to a cause. In the UK, however, cross-border solidarity is fostered by our system of government: we truly rise and fall together.
It’s heartening to hear the First Minister echoing my views. It’s also reassuring to hear her asserting that SNP MPs can not only exert influence on Westminster but recognise when its laws are worth keeping. Yet rather than leading to any adjustment in position or rhetoric, this is clearly the latest in umpteenth opportunistic gestures which are concerned solely with the SNP and its goal of independence. As I’ve noted, these gestures are more and more underlining the utter incoherence of the SNP’s nationalism: that it hasn’t even begun to buckle beneath these contradictions, let alone collapse, is a damning indictment of the left.