The EU Referendum: Lies, Immigrants and Lexit

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.)

13327630_10153709421132547_3902684968294376424_n(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.

The EU Referendum, the SNP and Political Fog

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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

The Cul De Sac of Self-Delusion – A Year After Indyref

This was my Facebook status on the morning of 18th September 2014:

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I wasn’t going to write anything about the anniversary of the referendum as I’ve written at length about the result, the sad collapse of much of the left into nationalism, the nationalist myths which have firmly taken hold and the left’s delusions about the SNP. I even wrote in December, only 2 months after the vote, about how my prediction in that status was quickly being shown to be true. There seems little more to add but a couple of things I’ve read today made me want to put down a few thoughts. Both pieces, I think, clearly show the predicted ‘cul de sac of self-delusion’.

The first is this statement from RISE, the new ‘left alliance’ in Scotland which professes to represent Respect, Independence, Socialist and Environmentalism, on the election of Jeremy Corbyn. RISE is, apparently, a ‘people’s movement’ based in ‘discussion and dialogue’ – yet not if you’re a supporter of Scottish Labour, it seems. The statement drips with glee at the ‘historic meltdown’ which has seen Labour rapidly decline in Scotland, with most of its support going to the SNP which, as Colin Kidd argues here:

…did not so much topple Labour as impersonate it. But the situation is more complicated still. The SNP had for decades courted old-style Liberals in small towns and the rural peripheries, and more recently has also won the votes of disorientated Scottish Tories, impressed by the SNP’s unfussy competence as a minority government between 2007 and 2011. As a result, the SNP currently occupies virtually the whole bandwidth of Scottish politics, unionism included.

As has been typical of the left, RISE seems positively joyful at this rearranging of the chairs. Its statement presents Scottish Labour as fundamentally broken, going to pains to separate it from UK Labour under Corbyn (an interesting move given the pro-indy movement’s fixation on Johann Lamont’s comments that Scottish Labour was treated as a ‘branch office’ by the leadership in London). It asserts:

The vast majority of progressive opinion in Scotland has rejected both austerity and the Westminster set up which is imposing it at the behest of the big business and the bankers. These voters back both socialist answers to the crisis and the independent Scotland we need to implement them.

This is typical of the delusions which comfort the left in Scotland. Voters opting for austerity imposed by the SNP rather than the Conservatives is presented as a wholesale ‘rejection’ of austerity. This is also bizarrely presented as support for ‘socialist answers to the crisis’. Current polls for next year’s Holyrood election have the SNP on over 50% of both constituency and regional vote, with some having it above 60%. The socialist parties, on the other hand, hover between 0%-3%. Even if you generously include the Greens, this amounts to less than 10% support for parties clearly to the left of the SNP – a very strange support for socialism indeed.

It’s notable that the mention of socialism is very quickly followed by a mention of independence. This is new paradigm of Scottish politics, the prism through which everything must be viewed. We saw as much in the SNP’s spectacularly crass statement, issued within seconds of Corbyn’s victory, setting him up to fail and presenting such a failure as a pathway to independence. It underlined that constitutional issues remain the central reason for the SNP’s existence, even if its mention of Trident (one of the only issues it has credibly been able to outflank Labour on from the left) attempted to obscure the fact. Corbyn’s response to this highlighted the gap between the SNP’s rhetoric and its actual record in power:

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Rather than face the reality that almost all of the electoral benefits of the pro-independence referendum fallout have been captured by the SNP, RISE smugly asserts that the movement Corbyn wants to build “is not possible to develop…around the Labour Party.” The unspoken remainder of that assertion is ‘because it does not support independence’. As the RISE statement shows, independence in itself continues to be presented as inherently progressive, inevitably leading to better things.

This is also the case in a Bella Caledonia piece marking the referendum anniversary. This begins with an entirely not-nationalist appeal to a quote from 1935 asserting that the “Celtic fringe” is always opposed in attempting to build nationhood. This not-nationalist rhetoric rests on the continuing myth that there is something fundamentally different about people in Scotland compared to the evil oppressors in England (the ‘Celtic identity’ is a modern invention – this is very good on that) and also the collapsing of everyone in Scotland into the pro-independence camp. You cannot, after all, continue to contrast ‘Scotland’ with the wickedness of the ‘UK’ if you recognise that Scotland is not a homogenous mass of opinion.

Yet, hilariously, BC immediately moves on to attack the “absence of self-awareness, the lack of history, the shallowness of empty promises” of Better Together. Of course it does. Better Together has, with the ‘Red Tories’, ‘Westmonster’ and ‘unionists’ come to represent all that is wicked in the binary world of the nationalists. Rather than just being a bit of a rubbish (at times offensively so) campaign, it is now a byword for “lies distortion and fear”, contrasted with the ‘hope’, ‘ideas’ and ‘vision’ of the Yes movement (the white paper’s corporation tax cut really carries a lot).

Despite a claim that “Self-criticism is key to building a stronger Yes 2.0” the piece is resplendent in the worst aspects of the ‘Yes movement’ – aspects which have become absolutely central. It lists ‘Proud Scots but’ amongst the enemies of independence, insidiously conflating national pride with support for independence. It asserts that, rather than wait, the Yes movement should “begin to build the institutions, structures and projects” crucial to make its case. This has been the mantra of the ‘it’s not about the SNP’ left for the past two years – when exactly are they planning to start?

It heaps every problem of the political system, every flaw in every politician, onto the back of ‘unionists’, as if pro-independence politicians are saintly (and Sturgeon didn’t lie about, for example, Labour ‘signing up to £30 billion of cuts). I doubt many sympathetic to Bella Caledonia’s aims will bat an eyelid at a sentence as lazily sinister as “the Unionist side will always have the might of the propaganda machine behind them”. That, as someone who doesn’t support independence, he will have ‘the might of the propaganda machine’ behind him will certainly be news to Jeremy Corbyn, who has been subjected to a swift media mauling in his first week as leader. It will be news to him that he is “inexorably tied” to the House of Lords and the monarchy, both aspects of the constitution on which he is far more radical than the SNP.

Yet it’s one of the founding myths of the modern Yes movement that the evil media lies about noble independence. BC writes:

As we look back we can see the Project Fear as a form of inoculation against British propaganda. Having been exposed to a small amount of the virus, next time we will be immune.

This sounds positively unhinged yet it’s typical of a significant body of opinion. All those pesky questions about the currency, pensions, national debt, energy, oil, defence etc – they are reduced to a ‘virus’, dismissed as not worth bothering with. As I wrote the day after the referendum:
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It’s silly to dismiss all challenge to and criticism of the media. It’s equally silly to go to the opposite extreme and suggest that everything in the media which challenges your own view is ‘biased’ and the product of wicked unseen forces. Such thought takes us to very dangerous places indeed and closes off the possibility of serious, constructive media reform (of the type suggested by e.g. Dan Hind). This is why it is so important that Corbyn’s supporters couch their response to the media’s recent hatchet jobs in an understanding of power and interests, presenting facts and alternative views rather than retreating into hysterical shrieking about ‘propaganda’ and ‘viruses’.

The central failing of the BC article is emblematic of the most damaging cul de sac which the left has gone down. It presents “the day-to-day grind of poverty, poor housing and low wage(s)” as the product of “British governance”. It draws on a Lancet report suggesting life expectancy in Southern England is amongst the ‘best in the world’ while in Scotland it is amongst the worst, clearly continuing the narrative of poor Scotland being oppressed by the wicked, decadent ‘Southern Englanders’. Aside from completely ignoring the myriad of complex, interacting reasons for any ‘north/south divide’ (not least industrialisation and its decline) it completely avoids the massive inequalities which exist within Scotland itself. Recognising this means recognising that poverty, housing and pay are not constitutional issues but rather ones related to our economic system (something which leaps out at you in the Guardian’s reporting of the issue).

Poverty may be present, to varying degrees, in all advanced capitalist economies but we’re somehow asked to believe that the central problem for Scotland is which parliament is making which decisions. If Holyrood had some more control, it could somehow stop it. This delusion not only divides the left, suggesting that a socialist Labour led by Corbyn could never be a true ally, but also draws immense talent and energy away from the real issues of importance. Even RISE, professing to want a socialist Scotland, would rather make electoral hay by dividing people with similar views along constitutional lines than point out that independence would only defer the battles which need to be won (while presenting the working-class in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as ‘different’.)

The left has become entrenched in these cul de sacs, to the extent that I am under no illusions as to the likelihood of Jeremy Corbyn winning much of it back in Scotland. I am very sympathetic to this argument that only a vote for independence could restore some perspective to Scottish politics. In the meantime, however, I am hopeful that Corbyn will be able to expose that the independence movement is overwhelmingly built on nationalist ground, with the ‘socialism’ bit being little more than a decorative afterthought to make it seem more appealing. Then, at least, the self-delusion will be exposed.