Brexit and the politics of irrationality

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.

 

74 thoughts on “Brexit and the politics of irrationality

  1. I’d add that it’s not just Corbyn – if Burnham, Cooper, Kendall wanted to prove that they might have been a better choice as leader, why not stand up and lead in the EU debate? Where are the big guns for Labour? Isn’t the BoJo/Gove show a perfect target?

    Let’s not forget the role of the media here. The LibDems are as Europhilic as UKIP is Europhobic and are still a bigger party in terms of MPs and council seats. But how often do we get Farage on BBC/ITV/Sky vs Tim Farron? So it’s not just about Labour, there’s a fundamental problem with how the coverage is put together.

    • Extra thought, there’s a pretty sophisticated Tory campaign that precedes Corbyn, it started with Miliband, but it works well to Leave’s advantage:

      “Miliband/Corbyn/London/metrosexual/miscegenation Labour has lost touch with the working class on immigration.”

      I see this a lot in the Telegraph/Mail/Sun. It’s a definite line of attack.

  2. Corbyn may not be passionate about the EU, but he is “doing his duty” in terms of campaigning. The problem is that the media (particularly the “liberal” end) are determined not to give him any credit. If Leave win, it will be Corbyn’s fault; if Remain squeak through the narrow margin will be due to Labour “shirkers”; and if Remain win handsomely it will be no thanks to Corbyn (perhaps Gordon Brown will get the credit once more).

    In reality, Labour voters have been consistently pro-Remain, on occasion being even more enthusiastic than LibDem voters. The narrowing in the polls is entirely due to more Tory voters shifting to Leave (compare YouGov’s 17-May and 10-Jun polls). The centrist antipathy to Corbyn is a bigger threat to Remain than the man’s performance.

    Where Corbyn can be criticised is that his pitch is centred on workers’ rights. The problem is that this isn’t compelling for those in low-wage, unprotected industries (or who feel they are unprotected), or for those out of work who are resentful about limited employment opportunities and fraying public services. However, he has a problem expanding this message simply because he is working against a dominant ideology that has been decades in the making.

    Since the mid-90s we’ve been told that the welfare state is suffering from excessive demand and inefficiency, not a lack of funding. This claim, promoted by New Labour as much as the Tories, allowed xenophobes to recast immigration from a cultural issue to one of resource competition, with “bogus asylum-seekers” auditioning the role that would then be applied to our native-born skiving underclass. The anti-Muslim turn after 2001 has allowed cultural antipathy and paranoia to be added back into the mix, producing a toxic brew.

    It should hardly come as a surprise that immigration has become the decisive issue in the referendum, despite the fact that this process started well ahead of EU expansion in 2004 and the vote does not affect non-EU migrant flows. Most Labour politicians haven’t a clue how to address it beyond “understanding concerns” – i.e. assuming the working class is incorrigibly racist. Corbyn is one of very few politicians whose position can be said to be one of integrity.

    • I am curious about this: How much money goes to preventing terrorism, that is, policing and monitoring suspicious behavior in Muslim held enclaves? Are immigrants in general, not just Muslims, able to find gainful employment or create adequate self-employment? Finally, do employment opportunities and adequate (clean, well-maintained) housing keep pace with the rate of immigrants arrival to England? What are projections of future immigration and economic growth and accompanying infrastructure?

  3. Corbyn may not be passionate about the EU, but he is “doing his duty” in terms of campaigning. The problem is that the media (particularly the “liberal” end) are determined not to give him any credit. If Leave win, it will be Corbyn’s fault; if Remain squeak through the narrow margin will be due to Labour “shirkers”; and if Remain win handsomely it will be no thanks to Corbyn (perhaps Gordon Brown will get the credit once more).

    In reality, Labour voters have been consistently pro-Remain, on occasion being even more enthusiastic than LibDem voters. The narrowing in the polls is entirely due to more Tory voters shifting to Leave (compare YouGov’s 17-May and 10-Jun polls). The centrist antipathy to Corbyn is a bigger threat to Remain than the man’s performance.

    Where Corbyn can be criticised is that his pitch is centred on workers’ rights. The problem is that this isn’t compelling for those in low-wage, unprotected industries (or who feel they are unprotected), or for those out of work who are resentful about limited employment opportunities and fraying public services. However, he has a problem expanding this message simply because he is working against a dominant ideology that has been decades in the making.

    Since the mid-90s we’ve been told that the welfare state is suffering from excessive demand and inefficiency, not a lack of funding. This claim, promoted by New Labour as much as the Tories, allowed xenophobes to recast immigration from a cultural issue to one of resource competition, with “bogus asylum-seekers” auditioning the role that would then be applied to our native-born skiving underclass. The anti-Muslim turn after 2001 has allowed cultural antipathy and paranoia to be added back into the mix, producing a toxic brew.

    It should hardly come as a surprise that immigration has become the decisive issue in the referendum, despite the fact that this process started well ahead of EU expansion in 2004 and the vote does not affect non-EU migrant flows. Most Labour politicians haven’t a clue how to address it beyond “understanding concerns” – i.e. assuming the working class is incorrigibly racist. Corbyn is one of very few politicians whose position can be said to be one of integrity.

  4. I find one comment interesting in itself, your second sentence: “There appears to be every sign that, in the South Wales valleys…. will vote to leave the EU.”. I find it interesting because if the valleys (yes, I was born in one of those valleys, and though I have not lived there since the early 80s, my family still does) have been the beneficiaries of such wonderful EU funding, how come they’re still in need of it. Could it be, that they(/we) believe/see/experience that it doesn’t achieve anything? So what would be the point of staying for more?

  5. I cannot claim a detailed familiarity with British relationships to the EU but I am somewhat curious about the immigration issue since it appears that Europe in general seems to be rather aggressive in locking out the surge of unfortunates who are daily committing suicide by drowning in panic fleeing the frightful murderous mess in the Middle East and are even paying a kind of ransom to Turkey to sequester whatever refugees make it that far and hold them back from Europe. Greece and Portugal and Spain are defrauded of their national wealth by the intransigence of the wealthier members of the EU to wreck their economies to the benefit of the financial troika who demand the citizens be held to more or less poverty to repay debts for which they are not responsible. The general policies of the EU seem not at all responsive to the basic needs of the populace nor their future possibilities. The only benefits for those policies are accruing to the large international corporations and I can well understand a strong reluctance to move towards that.

    • That has been my impression as well. I visited England twice. The first time, immigration was barely an issue. Opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship seemed to keep pace with their arrival and I sensed that assimilation was supported and encouraged. At that time, however, London was relatively new to the EU. However, since the Gulf War, the rate of immigration seems to have outpaced growth, economic and infrastructure. Enter 2008 financial crisis and more instability in the Mid- East…well, you get the picture.

      • The general view against immigration in the UK seems to be (and mostly has been, though with the huge wave of immigrants I figure it has come to a head), that the govt is spending huge amounts of money on housing and giving benefits to them, but does not grant the same to all of its citizens. Another factor is that EU regulations make it hard to do business. Many small businesses fail because of crushing EU regulations. Someone who is an MD of a company in the UK is not entitled to benefits if the company fails – at least those were the rules when I left 20 years ago, I doubt they’ve relaxed. So the EU stops people from working and then disallows them the benefits it gives to immigrants. France at least does not give great (any) benefits to other EU immigrants.

  6. Pingback: Brexit and the politics of irrationality — Notes from a Broken Society – impact current events

  7. I can honestly say I haven’t heard a convincing argument for leave or remain, my concern is what would happen if we left? Would trade and jobs be affected by the companies that rely on the EU? Would immigration really change that much? And if people vote mainly because of immigration then the Brexit scare tactics have worked and we could be a nation in serious trouble, this is certainly a walk into the unknown.

    • Aside from the economic situation the EU is intrinsically tied into the military posturing of NATO and the economically disastrous policies of austerity out of the IMF which is destroying any potential of the member countries to regain a sensible economy. The buildup of US military installations surrounding Russia to rise horribly the potentiality for a world conflict involving nuclear weapons which undeniably can sterilize the entire planet is certainly no plaything for a sane mind. The competence of the military adventures in the Middle East and Africa in which Britain was seduced to participate has revealed a universal incompetence of the policies and military understandings of the USA in these matters and the EU seems inextricable entwined in this series of disasters.

  8. My gosh. This sounds so much like what’s going on in the U.S. with Donald Trump promising to make our nation great again by blocking immigration of various groups and renegotiating trade “deals”. But Trump is no Etonian. The political elite here hate him in spite of all his money.

    • I think the immigration issue is best understood in person. I’m a Detroiter, immigrants don’t seem to help or harm the economy. They’re affected by it just are citizens. Unfortunately, when white flight happens where the immigrant populations increase, there seems to come with it, economic blight. Dearborn, a formerly beautiful city, is now predominantly Muslim. Government handouts have spiked there, not because of Muslims per se, but because Detroit’s economy faltered at a time when immigration was also spiking. So, it looks like immigration caused the problem, when in fact, it simply outpaced the region’s ability to provide opportunities.

      • There are plenty of opportunities for the government to take up the slack in employment both in the USA and Europe by spending on vitally needed infrastructure as FDR did during the depression but the idiotic neoliberal agenda prefers to dump billions into the pockets of the ultra rich financiers instead of where it is needed by the general populace. Trump, being one of the elite, uses immigration to hide the economic stupidity.

  9. Pingback: Brexit and the politics of irrationality — Notes from a Broken Society – Sig Nordal, Jr.

  10. The problem with the remain campaign is that, so far, they have not promoted the EU. They have merely tried to bully and scare the voters in to believing the world will end if we leave. Which of course it won’t. The majority of the ‘experts’ were wrong about the Euro let’s not forget. They have galvanized all their political might to back their argument up, but it’s the people that will decide. In my view, we have our own democratically elected and accountable government, so why do we need the EU? Yes, the EU has provided benefits (working rights etc) but no British government would remove them as that would be political suicide. The EU, again in my opinion, is holding Britain back with it’s unwanted bureaucracy and much slower growth rate. Of course people will have doubts about losing funding for farming etc when we leave, but, monetarily at least, we put in more than what we get out of the EU, so there will be more cash in the pot to spend where we want, how we want, again with the voters deciding ultimately if the government has done the right thing or not. Put simply, this is a vote about democracy. British MEPs only make up 10% of an EU parliament which is becoming more and more powerful. We need to get control back and start doing great things on our own again without the rules imposed on us by other (Fishing quotas anyone?) . A vote to leave is a bold, positive one for the future of our country.

  11. Sovereignty a nebulous concept? How can the power of a nation to govern itself be nebulous? Try reading this http://www.westernspring.co.uk/the-coudenhove-kalergi-plan-the-genocide-of-the-peoples-of-europe/ about the long standing conspiracy to destroy the individual nations of white Europe. The Kalergi prize has already been awarded to Merkel and Avon Rumpuy and ANY European reading this would vote to get aware from the EU organisation as possible. Read it!

  12. Pingback: Well written post by : Notes from a Broken Society

  13. For some strange reason (or lack of reason), populism is back. It’s one of the dangers of Democracy that we have not yet learned to avoid. Let us hope that when it comes down to the actual vote, the majority in the U.K. will not vote to exit the E. U. and the majority in the U.S. will not vote for Donald Trump.
    Let us then work to reduce the appeal of such manipulative politics.

  14. I agree. I stood alone in work against 30 people who wanted to vote leave on…immigration reasons. I said…’what about the economy? The living standards? Humanity?’ Which fell on deaf ears. Anyone is welcome here in my eyes…legally…

  15. A thoughtful and sadly accurate blog post. I do believe in short that if BREXIT comes to pass and our economy is stimulated it will be the rich and big business that accrue all the benefits; while if our economy shrinks it will be the poorest and most vulnerable who pay the price. It has always been so.

    • It has always been so. Unfortunately it is mathematically impossible for all of us to be above average, never mind in the top ten percent or one percent. I don’t doubt that if prosperity comes our way, the rich individuals and corporations who have invested wisely will prosper. The same thing is true of course for everybody else. The problem is that not every one invests wisely. Those who have nothing to invest but their time as well as those who have a lot of financial capital will suffer if they don’t invest wisely. It’s not what you have. It’s what you do with it.

  16. Cameron made a huge political mistake giving the public mastery of their own destiny. Even if the UK vote to remain, Cameron’s days are numbered I’m sure. His paymasters won’t allow his Referendum folly to go unpunished.

    My worry is that if we remain, and this status quo continues, where will everything end? My worry is that if we leave, and everything changes, where will everything end? My worry is that if somehow Trump gets elected (and lets not fool ourselves, it could well happen) where will everything end?

    • There is no doubt that Trump is a rabble rouser with little handle on the real problems. But to use this egotistical monster to enable Clinton to further energize the military-industrial complex in its move towards a military confrontation with China and Russia, a target that gives her great inspirations to further destroy whatever chance for peace and the future of civilization seems only suicidal insanity. The choice seems to be which doorway to Hell you prefer.

  17. Don’t worry! Be Happy! One thing is certain, we will continue to evolve both biologically and culturally. If we keep working at the cultural part we’ll get through with less pain and discomfort. If we leave it to chance, there will be increasing pain and discomfort.

    • Obviously this is an opinion voiced by one of the last dinosaurs. Surely some bright cockroach would approve.

  18. I do think it’d be wise if immigrants only came with verified job offers or to join spouses. It would make the rate of immigration more manageable. In other words, immigrants arrival should be linked to financial independence, unless w nation is experiencing labor shortages. Even then, arrival should be in response to job offers. Students should be sent hone within a given time frame. Many of the Muslim students in my town don’t leave when they’re supposed to, at the end of their studies, most do, but a substantial number of them head to Dearborn, an impoverished Muslim enclave, surrounded by decay. It’s a veritable nest for disenfranchised Muslims. So, far though, with the cities problems, everyone suffers. So, there is no catalyst for them to feel discriminated against. And African Americans in Detroit, have an amicable, if distant relationship with them.

  19. Very interesting points, very similar to my analysis of the Brexit arguments in my blog 1000wordsorless.com . I think the campaign has been marred by confusing arguments that have played on irrational fears

  20. The coming weeks and months will give the lie to many of these leave arguments. As banking institutions relocate staff and/or offices, when Scotland says goodbye, etc. Only then will the voters collectively bemoan this poor decision.

  21. How could such a momentous decision been structured so that a simple majority decides? I really cannot understand why policy would be made by a mass vote in which 51% of the vote carries the day. It makes no sense. It allows emotional decision making to rule the day as we have seen here.

    Jack

    • The EU has clearly demonstrated an agenda partial to the benefit of the corporate and financial elites to the point of putting Greece and Spain so deeply in debt that they were forced to surrender their infrastructure to the private ownership of the external wealthy countries and destroying wages and basic benefits of the populace and the basic economy through austerity programs that helped no one. That agenda is obviously not worth saving.

      • It is comforting to know that if I am irresponsible and put myself too deeply into debt, that there is at least one individual who will blame it on the corporate and financial elites.

      • It seems you are totally unfamiliar with the huge screw-up in 2008 in the USA wherein the banking system required something in the nature of a trillion dollars to keep the financial population from jumping out of skyscraper windows. So the USA thereby saw to it the system did not crumble. In Greece the EU central banking system is methodically destroying the Greek economy so that it can never recover enough to even pay off what it owes which, it appears, seems a sensible solution to you If you would like to become a bit better informed see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/23/europe

        The agenda of austerity is one of the most brutally stupid and obviously ineffective economic policies that could be imagined and is totally idiotic.

  22. Well we are out and the sponsors of the out are no where to be scene. Moodys have rated us – unrateable, racism rears it ugly head again after decades of silence. All parties are in a mess. Pound is at 31 year low. and Boris and grove are missing in action. horrid.

  23. Great article on the vote for Brexit despite all of the facts being on the remain side.

    I have written a blog article here that touches on Brexit being something that the elite has been lobbying on & they have lied their way through the referendum to take advantage of the anti-elitist vote.

    https://centristprinciples.wordpress.com/2016/06/27/brexit-was-no-working-class-revolution-but-an-elitist-plot/

    I would be interested in what you think, thanks.

  24. We all get to see the negatives of this referendum. Are are there any positives Find out on Quotidian Commercium -https://thecommercecode.wordpress.com/2016/06/26/brexit-is-there-a-silver-lining/

  25. It’s funny that you talk about “unaccountable elites” when that is exactly what you currently have in Brussels. Also if the EU has been doing so much to help the poor people whales, why are they still in such abject poverty? Having the freedom to make decisions based on what is best for your country and not what is best for other countries also somehow connected to you through the mess that is the EU is a necessary freedom. The UK shouldn’t be kept from making trade agreements with India that would greatly enhance their economy just because the Italian workers don’t want the competition. It’s also funny that all of the major corporations that many of those supporting the remain campaign have such disdain for are also backing remain. That is because large corporations can afford all of the regulations placed on them by the EU but their smaller competitors cannot. This is essentially driving their competition out of business by making the cost of operating impossible on a small scale. Why should the UK’s economy be pulled down by the likes of Greece and other countries making irresponsible financial decisions?

  26. An excellent article. Left Wales to travel the world 20 years ago and I have learnt and earned much more than I ever could have at home. Everyone should have the opportunities that I have. We must not close borders to ourselves. Get out into Europe and beyond, live there, work there, make friends, make money!

  27. Great read. The similarities between Brexit’s “Take Back our Country” and Trump’s “Make America Great Again” are frigtening. Campaigns of fear and hate thinly hidden under the guise of nationalism fueling a perverted Us vs. Them mentality.

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