A few miles from where I am sitting, something altogether disturbing is about to happen. There appears to be every sign that, in the South Wales valleys, thousands of people in one of the most deprived areas of the UK – one whose Less Developed Region status under EU rules means that it is a target for EU funding , for social projects like Sure Start as well as the better-known funding for industrial relocation, training and infrastructure – will vote to leave the EU. Moreover, they will be doing so for reasons that have nothing to do with their economic wellbeing and have everything to do with nebulous concepts of nationality and sovereignty.
The issue that dominates, according to conversations I have had with those campaigning in those areas, is immigration. Not that these communities have as much direct experience of mass immigration from inside or outside the EU as in many other places; but this view is driven by what is happening elsewhere, including the ethnic diversity of Cardiff. What we who live in Cardiff see as one of the city’s great strengths is seen many in poorer communities as a threat. The Brexit campaigners’ narrative that leaving the EU means that Britons can take back their country, and take control of their borders, is working. The wholly dishonest Brexit line that leaving will save the UK £350m per year which could be spent on the NHS plays well in areas where public health is poor and where politicians on the Right have continually denigrated the quality of service in the Welsh NHS.
And it’s not difficult to see how these lines can play in communities that were destroyed economically in the 1980s, when Thatcher tore the heart out of the mining and steel industries, and have never recovered – either economically or in terms of their identity. The myth of “taking back power” is inevitably attractive to people who have been so brutally disempowered by London politicians.
And yet it is a narrative that doesn’t stand up. Wales benefits massively from the EU, not just from European funding, but as an economy based on manufacturing and agriculture – one whose strategy to attract high-quality jobs is dependent on its membership of the single market. Withdrawal from the EU would be catastrophic for the Welsh economy, in a way that Westminster politicians who cannot see beyond the City of London and the Home Counties simply cannot imagine.
Moreover, as First Minister Carwyn Jones pointed out in a powerful statement of why Wales should vote to remain, the idea that Westminster will make up the losses from EU funding is just ludicrous. The experience of seventeen years of devolution is that Wales, hamstrung by the deeply discredited Barnett Formula, is firmly at the back of every queue for funding, treated with contempt by Westminster Ministers and Treasury officials alike. Does anyone seriously believe that London-centric politicians of the ilk of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage (whose party’s leader in the Senedd refuses even to live in Wales) will give Wales a second thought? Or that the drought of NHS funding is due to anything other than conscious decisions by Westminster Tories?
And the issues for Wales are a microcosm of a much bigger issue – not just the way in which the debate about the EU has been hijacked by the issue of immigration, which is largely irrelevant, but the way in which rational argument has been brushed aside in favour of debates about abstract ideas like sovereignty, regardless of the hard realities of economic and social life. It looks like a text-book example of the fallacy of reification made manifest, in which vague, undefined concepts take on a life of their own as policy objectives
To take one example – the idea that people in Britain can “take back their country”. What does this mean? And, the obvious question, sovereignty for whom? Is the leadership of the Brexit campaign really offering popular democracy to people who have hitherto not exercised power? Of course not. The reality is about elites preserving their power – Johnson, Gove, Farage, businesses who see workers’ rights as an impediment to their accumulation of wealth, men who believe that a woman’s place is cleaning behind the fridge. It is about using national symbolism to do what it has always done; to hide where power lies and to make sure it remains there unchallenged. The idea that the dismantling of workplace rights, consumer legislation, environmental standards and human rights legislation that remains at the heart of the Brexit agenda will leave the people of the Rhondda, or indeed those of London or Manchester or Glasgow, more empowered is a fiction that becomes more ludicrous every time one considers it. Strip away the sonorous rhetoric of nationhood and bogus history, and you have the neoliberal project at its purest and most explicit; the subjugation of the political, and especially democracy, to the financial interests of an unaccountable elite. Behind every populist assertion of Britishness stands a smiling Old Etonian with an offshore account.
But at the same time there is a sense in which the Leave campaign has become powerfully anti-political – the ultimate expression of the fact that the UK political system is deeply dysfunctional and held in contempt by millions of electors. The tone of the campaign has been horrifying – the dishonesty, the scaremongering and above all the descent into the crude racism with which the issue of immigration (irrelevant to the issue of whether we should stay) has been discussed. This has been a campaign of lies: that leaving will save Britain £350m per week, that the UK cannot veto Turkish membership of the EU. And when David Cameron repeats the simple truth – that the accession of a new member requires a unanimous vote of existing Member States – his reputation is so debased that the Leave campaign can continue to repeat the lie with impunity. If this campaign shows nothing else, it is that the lie has become normalised in political debate.
Nowhere is that more in evidence than in the debate about immigration. It is a simple and demonstrable lie that immigration has taken people’s jobs, or imposes a burden on our services. The evidence is overhwelming but the lie continues. And it’s sobering that the Labour Party is just as culpable as the Right; it has consistently pandered to the myth – through the appalling anti-immigration mugs issued for the 2015 election, or, more significantly, by its habitual use of the phrase “listening to people on immigration” to mean avoiding challenging the myths and telling the truth*. The Labour Party needs to think long and hard about how its pandering to populism about immigration has contributed to the mood of what is, frankly, racism that has run through the EU debate.
The Labour Party also needs to think hard about its own failures in this debate. I know that throughout this campaign, thousands of Labour grassroots activists have worked tirelessly to make the case for remaining; but the Labour leadership has been pitiful. I did wonder whether those who surround Jeremy Corbyn, and whose political careers have been defined by a concern with Labour internal politics, have simply been caught like rabbits in the headlights when faced with the need to engage with people who share a fundamentally different view of the world. This is no time for wavers of rule-books and suspenders of standing orders; Labour needs to be far, far better than this. At least here in Wales, Carwyn Jones has been a passionate, eloquent proponent of the case for the EU; not for the first time, Team Corbyn could learn a lot from a Welsh First Minister with a real track-record of delivery.
But most of all, the truly terrifying fact about the EU referendum debate is that we are being carried along on a tide of emotionalism and symbolism – and in the case of immigration, a tide of outright intellectual and moral dishonesty – when a rational intelligent decision is needed. Every major figure in macroeconomics agrees that Brexit will damage the economy; bitter experience tells us that in a profoundly unequal society the poor and vulnerable, the young and women, the UK’s poorest regions will bear the brunt while the Goves and Farages and Johnsons, the “city boys”that Carwyn Jones mentioned in his speech, the millionaires whose staff give birth in toilets because they’re too scared to take a sick day , will be just fine. At times it has felt almost like being in the latter days of the Weimar Republic, in which traditional rational politics cannot hold back the irrationalism and has been fatally wounded by its appeasement of the myth-makers. We need to consider not just the devastating effect of leaving the EU, but – crucially – what this campaign tells us about our politics.
*When you are told, as I have been by a Labour activist, that middle-class people have no right to talk about immigration, you know that you are on a slippery slope to a very unpleasant place indeed.