“When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say;
when I go to Brussels, they take no notice.”
– Rupert Murdoch
23 June 2016: 37% vote Leave, 35% vote Remain, 28% don’t even vote. How did it come to this?
Act one: acts of betrayal
The first European civil war, which came to be known as the Great War, was the culmination of decades of blinkered nationalism, whipped up to a frenzy in the run-up to 1914 by political and financial elites, at the very time when working men and women in Europe were establishing their own forms of democratic organisation and representation, and reaching out to one another across national boundaries. The assassination of the socialist leader Jean Jaurès by a French nationalist on 31 July 1914 symbolised and prefigured the speedy death on the killing fields of these hopes for international fraternity.
In 1918-19, some nations claimed to have won the war; what is certain is that Europe lost it. The various “peace” treaties of 1919-20 carved up Europe and the Middle East into a myriad of national and ethnic entities. It was taken for granted that the losing nation, Germany, was the villain of the piece, and as such had to pay. It was also assumed that this retribution could be extracted without harming European stability – in particular the stability of Germany itself. We know the result: two decades of economic and political turmoil throughout Europe, and utter failure on the part of the “victors” to think and act internationally, or to establish fair and just societies on their home front.
Two generations of political and financial leaders betrayed the next two generations: my maternal grandfather’s, and my mother’s. Today, another generation of political and financial leaders has betrayed the next two generations – young adults and their children – by allowing social and financial inequalities to reach grotesque levels. If the UK government now acts to take the UK out of the EU, it will be compounding that betrayal.
Act two: the membership that dared not speak its name
Since January 1973, successive UK governments have acted as if our membership of the EU was something that one didn’t talk about. Everyone knew that we had “joined the Common Market” (which became the Single Market in 1992), but the ongoing work of the various institutions of the EU to set and raise standards in all member states in terms of justice, the environment, employment rights and working conditions, and to secure Europe’s voice and place in a changing world, went largely unreported, let alone celebrated. The European flag has never been displayed alongside the Union flag as a backdrop to ministerial and prime ministerial speeches and press conferences, as it is in other EU countries. The European flag is not displayed on public buildings such as city and town halls, whereas in cities and towns across the EU it flies proudly alongside the national, regional and local flags. In most places in England, there is no public acknowledgement of EU funding of infrastructure projects; in other EU countries (and in some other parts of the UK) this funding is given due prominence.
The default mindset in the UK is that “we belong to the EU”, as if our national independence and sovereignty had been handed over to an alien entity. In the rest of the EU, the default mindset is that “the EU belongs to us”: the EU is widely seen as the most appropriate framework and forum for advancing the interests of each member state. Since 1945, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy have all eventually come, often painfully, to accept that past colonial power and glory are woefully inadequate as a means of dealing with the multi-polar world of today. The EU is the living embodiment of the fact that European nations have found a better way of coexisting. Man does not live by trade alone: protection of the environment, food standards, fisheries policies, employment rights, working conditions, scientific and medical research, educational and cultural exchanges are all fundamental to the EU’s raison d’être.
To pretend that EU member states are “dictated to” by Brussels is a complete misrepresentation of how relations between member states and the EU actually work. The reality is that member states, including the UK, constantly fight their national corner: in July 2016, for example, France, Germany and Poland jointly secured from the EU Commission €500 million of additional funding to assist milk producers to reduce their production. Since 2010, the UK government has itself repeatedly used its power to influence EU decisions – for example by blocking proposals to tax financial transactions or capital stashed away in tax havens.
Those who imagine the UK’s national sovereignty is best protected by leaving the EU would do well to ponder the implications of the following quote: when asked by the journalist Anthony Hilton why he was so opposed to the EU, Rupert Murdoch is said to have replied: “When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels, they take no notice”.
Act three: the great confidence trick
Over the past 30-40 years, UK citizens’ sense of identity has been undermined as power and control over their lives have been handed to faceless global corporations. Millions have come to feel that the political establishment has no knowledge of or concern for their hardships or aspirations. Research released in October 2016 shows that Leave voters felt marooned from wider society, psychologically powerless, and nostalgic for the past. The most mendacious slogan of the Leave campaign was “Take back control”: control of what? To be taken back from whom, and by whom? This empty mantra was chanted by the very people, in press and parliament, who had long been advocating and implementing a systematic policy of privatisation and outsourcing, handing ownership and control of public assets to multinational corporations whose goal is private profit, not public good. A UK government that had the national interest at heart would indeed “take back control” of these national assets, and make common cause with other EU governments to reverse this destructive process.
Right-wing governments, and their cheerleaders in the media, have sedulously nurtured the lie that it’s not UK government policies, decisions and actions, but welfare scroungers, immigrants and the EU that are responsible for low pay, job insecurity, soaring housing costs and dwindling public services. An example: it is the UK government, not the EU, which controls, the allocation of EU fishing quotas. And what does it do with this sovereign power? It distributes 95% of EU fishing quotas for England and Wales to the largest firms, and 61% to just three of these: Interfish, Cornelis Vrolijk and Andrew Marr International. Like confidence tricksters and pickpockets down the ages, it diverts attention – and anger – towards the EU, while it robs small fisheries in Cornwall and elsewhere of their livelihood.
Since 2010, Westminster has waged war on local government, imposing budget cuts of 26-29%, forcing local councils, especially those serving poorer areas, to make savage cutbacks. Meanwhile, since the 1980s, government policies have dramatically increased housing insecurity for millions of voters, who feel that no one in Westminster knows or cares about their plight. The referendum campaign gave these people the chance to vent their anger on the political and financial establishment, and many of them took it. Nick Forbes, Labour leader of Newcastle council, sums it up: “The cuts have provided [UKIP] with a useful narrative against Labour: ‘Why are your streets not being cleaned? Why can’t you get a house?’ We saw a lot of that in the EU referendum campaign. It was entirely predictable that people used the referendum as a cry of outrage against years of austerity.”
As a direct result of government policies and/or inaction, much of the UK workforce is now under-skilled, under-trained and underpaid; the vast majority of ‘new job opportunities’ are unskilled, casual, temporary and/or self-employed and there are few incentives to train for a skilled job. Many employers in the agricultural, hotel and catering industries, and their hired gang-masters, actively recruit cheap labour from the EU and from abroad, and house them in squalid conditions, often in or near neighbourhoods of UK-born families on modest incomes. The resultant resentment is directed against the incomers who “take our jobs”, rather than against the UK companies and gang-masters who go out and recruit them, or against a government which allowed net immigration to the UK since 2010 to rise above 300 000 a year, while making immigration a major issue by loudly and repeatedly claiming that it was against … high levels of immigration! Throughout the EU referendum campaign, the tabloid press echoed and amplified the propaganda of the Leave camp, whipping up anti-immigrant fears and hatred among the least fortunate of the population, merging two categories of incomers (EU and non-EU) in people’s minds, and suggesting that the UK’s membership of the EU would lead to floods of incomers from Turkey, Iraq and Syria, as in the abject and lying leaflet that was distributed by the Leave camp in the closing days of the campaign. All this was designed to suggest to voters that the real alternatives on the ballot paper were: “Vote Remain for more immigrants, vote Leave for no immigrants”.
Perhaps the most despicable confidence trick of all was to hijack the substantial popular support for the NHS (despite wounding cuts and chaotic reorganisation since 2010) in the service of the Leave camp by pretending that leaving the EU would make massive additional funding available for the NHS. Most or all of the leading figures in the Leave camp, including Boris Johnson, appeared time and again in the media standing in front of a big red bus displaying the blue and white NHS logo (did NHS England, or the Health Secretary, authorise this?), and promising £350 million a week more for the NHS if the UK left the EU. Prominent Leave figures were repeatedly challenged on this claim; Boris Johnson was even instructed by the Conservative chair of the Treasury Select Committee to take it down: all to no avail. Our NHS successfully treats many casualties, but it has no remedy when Truth itself is murdered with impunity. Since 23 June, the Leave “savings account” for the NHS has dwindled to vanishing point in the face of competition from all the massive costs of Leave.
During the referendum campaign, the Leave camp and the tabloid press presented voters with a bewildering wish-list of mutually incompatible demands and promises, all of which were presented as risk-free and cost-free. At no point were voters presented with a valid alternative to EU membership:
“We can be like Norway”, said some. But Norwegian government members, including the prime minister, Erna Solberg, repeatedly urged British voters not to follow the Norway example, saying: “Do not leave the EU, you will hate it.” Politicians in Norway argue that the high price for access to the single market without EU membership is a loss of sovereignty, since the country is bound by EU decisions without having a vote on how they are taken.
“We can control immigration from the EU and still have free access to the EU Single Market”, said others (or the same ones on a different day). Yet both before and after the referendum, European government leaders have repeatedly and categorically stated that this version of having our cake and eating it would not be possible. Over to Switzerland, where, in 2014, the populist, Eurosceptic SVP party called for and, against all expectations, won a referendum, with 50.3% of voters demanding immigration quotas. Since then, not only has the European Commission not shifted on the issue of free movement, but Switzerland has been ejected from the EU’s science research programme, Horizon2020, and the Erasmus student exchange programme.
Then there was the full-on fantasy: “We can go it alone and trade with the rest of the world on our own terms/under WTO rules/ by doing deals with dozens of individual countries. Oh, and EU countries will be falling over themselves to give us a favourable deal.” This fairyland is still inhabited by some UK politicians today.
Act four: I accuse
“At the end of the day, there is always a price to be paid for demagogy, and this price is paid by ordinary people” (J-M Ayrault, French Foreign Secretary, August 2016).
1. The tabloid press
I accuse the tabloid press in the UK of failing in its moral duty to provide its readers with fair and balanced information on the momentous issue of the UK’s membership of the EU. For decades, the tabloids have withheld from their readers essential information on why the EU exists, what it is all about, how it works and how the UK works with it. Instead, they have manufactured lasting indignation over minor issues such as regulations about bananas and cucumbers, which anyway are about grades and calibres of produce. But when do they highlight the scandalous draconian and bureaucratic regulations imposed by UK supermarkets on their UK suppliers, covering price, appearance, terms of trade, discounts, and so on? In the months leading up to the referendum vote, the Mail, Express and Sun kept up a constant drumbeat of blanket hostility towards the EU. This front-page torrent of lies and misinformation set the daily agenda for an abjectly intimidated BBC.
I accuse Australian-American citizen Rupert Murdoch (“a man who has got no interest in Britain, who is deeply opposed to Britain and Britain’s interest, and is against the main national broadcaster” – John Simpson, September 2016) of pursuing in his tabloid newspapers a systematic agenda of degrading standards of political and public discourse in our country to the lowest common
denominator, following the example of right-wing politicians and media, particularly Murdoch’s Fox News, in the US. This process of degradation began long before the advent of social media, but by setting an example, the Murdoch press has helped to “license” the socially destructive proliferation of online personal abuse. I accuse Kelvin Mackenzie of having been, on and off during the last 40 years, the willing instrument of his master’s grand transatlantic designs, making personal abuse and fact-free populist, anti-establishment rants a permanent feature of the Sun “newspaper”. Hacking the UK off from continental Europe is the organ-grinder’s aim; encouraging Sun readers to regard the whole issue of the UK’s membership of the EU as just another cheap joke-opportunity was his monkey’s sycophantic contribution to the cause.
I accuse French resident (and beneficiary of EU farm subsidies for his UK landholdings) Paul Dacre of relentlessly fomenting hostility to the EU and promoting the career of Europhobic politicians. It is difficult to see this agenda as a belated apology for the pro-fascist and anti (Jewish) immigration articles that appeared under the Daily Mail masthead in the 1930s; nor can it be explained by arguing that he is prepared to back any cause or ruin any reputation in order to sell more newspapers. Why will he not come clean and publish the real reasons why he is so vehemently against EU membership? Could it be that his unstated agenda is closer to that of Murdoch that he would want us to realise? Does he really believe that our country’s true destiny is defined once and for all by being one of the privileged possessors of Five Eyes? The Daily Mail feeds off discontent, while actively promoting politicians and policies which exacerbate the causes of that discontent.
2. The politicians
I accuse David Cameron of acting without courage or sense of strategic direction when, in order to defeat David Davis in the 2005 leadership contest, he agreed to take his party’s MEPs out of the centre-right group in the European Parliament, removing at a stroke their opportunity to work with, influence and learn from one of the two principal party groups in the European parliament. In 2013, Cameron compounded his 2005 error by agreeing to make the UK’s membership of the EU the subject of a referendum, in order to placate increasingly wild and hysterical voices in his party at Westminster and in the shires. Their agenda was clear and long-standing, but his policy of appeasement was in stark contrast to the actions of John Major from 1992-97, who faced down the head-bangers by resigning as party leader and winning the subsequent leadership election. (Not that the head-bangers went away: they set about capturing local party associations and parliamentary selection panels, and eagerly seized the opportunities Cameron duly gave them to further their agenda.) In opposition from 2005 to 2010, Cameron acted as if he had never thought through the central issues of how the EU works and how the UK can best work within it. The realities of office from 2010 onwards opened his eyes and mind, but it was the mind of a man profoundly sceptical of the European project, and profoundly uninterested in how that project could be best made to work in the interest of all Europeans.
I accuse Boris Johnson of deliberately and repeatedly failing to give answers during the referendum campaign to specific and legitimate questions from the media and parliament about what future he saw for the UK and how that future could be secured. I accuse him of lending his notoriety to the dissemination of lies about what would, could or should happen if the UK left the EU: the lie that there would be vast amounts of extra cash for the NHS; the fiction that an independent UK fishery policy would suddenly re-stock “our” seas; the delusion that doing trade deals with all and sundry would be a piece of cake because all the world would rush to do the UK a favour. Even after the referendum, Johnson repeated Leave campaign lies, saying that there would be an additional £5bn per year for the NHS. It beggars belief that someone who acted and spoke with such utter irresponsibility during the referendum campaign should now, as Foreign Secretary, be in charge of the UK’s relations with other countries. In the closing days of the referendum campaign, the Leave camp falsely claimed that Turkey was on the threshold of joining the EU, and that 76 million Turks would soon be invading our shores. Three months later, as reported in the Sun, Johnson is in Ankara: “BOJO’S U-TURK /Boris Johnson says UK WILL support Turkey’s bid to join EU… despite campaigning against country’s membership during referendum campaign / Foreign Secretary used an official visit to Ankara to say Britain would aid the Turkish Government to become an EU member state”.
We are told that the over-riding value respected by boys during their everyday life at Eton is to be popular among one’s peers. Cameron and Johnson appear to have carried this value intact into their adult life, with the disastrous consequence that has now befallen us. Had Cameron spent more time in the School of Life, instead of in PR, he might have learnt that giving in to bullies and blackmailers has painful consequences sooner or later.
I accuse Nigel Farage of acting throughout his political life in direct contradiction to the very same British values of tolerance, fair-play and moderation which he claims are threatened by the UK’s membership of the EU. In 2010, during a plenary debate in the European Parliament, this champion of nation states insulted the nation states of Belgium and Greece, and delivered a tirade against EU President Herman van Rompuy, saying he had the “charisma of a damp rag” and the appearance of a “low-grade bank clerk.” For years, Farage has pandered to the populist myth that the rest of the world owes the UK a living. Thankfully, he has never been in a position of executive political responsibility which would have quickly demonstrated otherwise to him. In fact, Farage makes up his own “principles” as he goes along. Before 23 June, when he appeared to think that the Remain camp would win, he said publicly that a 52/48 vote for Remain “would not be the end of it”. After 23 June, when the first voices were heard challenging the legitimacy of the vote, this same man of principle declared that overturning the 52/48 vote for Leave would result in “Armageddon”. Perhaps he considers that it is this flexibility of his principles that makes him British. I accuse him of irresponsibly stirring up distrust and hostility towards foreigners throughout the referendum campaign, culminating in the disgraceful “Breaking point” poster (showing non-European refugees from war and chaos). Surfing on the climate of opinion stoked up over decades by the Daily Mail and the Sun, he acted out his own Little England fantasy, without heed to the risks that individuals would take him at his word and act out their fears, with violent and even tragic consequences both before and after the referendum vote.
Act five: Where do we go from here?
The anti-EU gang has led the British people into cloud-cuckoo land, and it is time to come back down to earth. It is now clear that the only two alternatives to EU membership are either complete severance, trading with the rest of the world under WTO rules and tariffs, or a Norway or Switzerland-style association with the EU, with full access to the Single Market, and consequently free movement of people. These two scenarios are mutually incompatible: it would be impossible to pick and mix features of both.
It is for the Government, in consultation with Parliament, to make its mind up between these two scenarios, and then to evaluate how the chosen scenario measures up in comparison with the status quo (i.e. UK remaining a full member of the EU). This is the real choice, which was not put before voters on 23 June. The High Court ruled on 3 November that Parliament alone has the power to trigger Brexit by notifying Brussels of the UK’s intention to leave the European Union; the lord chief justice said that “the most fundamental rule of the UK constitution is that parliament is sovereign”.
Who will be the first prominent Leave campaigner to admit publicly that the best “deal” on offer for the UK is to Remain? Boris Johnson has flip-flopped often enough on major issues in recent years, but his decision early in 2016 to flip from Remain to Leave, while counting on a Remain vote to ease him gently into number 10 some time in 2017, has manifestly flopped on both counts. So come on, Mr Johnson, one more flip, and the nightmare’s over!
“On both sides of the Channel, politics should be directed at understanding the underlying sources of anger; how, in a democracy, the political establishment could have done so little to address the concerns of so many citizens, and figuring out how to do that now: to create within each country, and through cross-border arrangements, a new, more democratic Europe, which sees its goals as improving the well-being of ordinary citizens.” (J. Stiglitz, The Euro, and its threat to the Future of Europe, 2016)
“The best possible deal with the EU is membership of the EU” (Martin Schulz, president of the European parliament, was applauded when he said this during a speech at the London School of Economics in September 2016.)
(In memory of Jo Leadbeater Cox MP, whose violent death shames some of the people named above, and whose life of dedication to the underprivileged shames us all.)
Emeritus Professor of French Language Studies