Saturday, 25 June 2016

First post-Brexit vote thoughts

Well, that was a surprise. We should more faith in polls than bookies, it seems. But I want to address the emotional fallout first. I never spotted any great emotional attachment to the EU in the UK (see Mark Mardell's well-judged piece here) but some nerve has been touched. What nerve? And why?

Personally, I am sad (a) that a lot of EU nationals that I know might feel rejected or hurt by the vote and (b) that the campaign, the vote and the aftermath have revealed a lot of division in this country. I understand (a), but what about (b)? We should have been warned by Scotland that a referendum uncovers a lot of bad feeling, turning family members against each other and so on. But all that means is that I am sad that other people are sad - why are they sad? (More below.)

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, you might think that having any sympathy for Leave puts you beyond the pale. That's sad. 

There were real concerns about sovereignty, in particular the possibility that this referendum would be the last chance to preserve it and that a Remain vote would be taken as carte blanche for the Five Presidents' Report and all the rest of it. I don't think people who regarded those risks as determinative of their votes are mad or bigoted. If you had said in 1975 that the EEC would, within not that many years, have a single currency that excluded the UK only because Tony Blair didn't get on with Gordon Brown, and had free movement of people from Romania to the UK, and so on and so on, and that all of that would happen without the British people getting another referendum on any of it, you would have been laughed at and dismissed as an alarmist. The EU has the Donald Trump-ish quality of surprising sane commentators with unfeasible success. 

Equally, I can see that some people think that things have gone too far already. Let's take the tampon tax as an example: the UK cannot abolish it without EU agreement. Maybe you regard that as too much interference already. That was not my view, but I think reasonable people can differ on points like that.

So far as sovereignty is concerned, people who are worried about it generally accept that it comes at a price. There is a decent argument that Napoleon was a lovely liberal guy who would have run this country better than George III's prime ministers, and that at any rate stopping him wasn't worth the huge economic cost to the country, so the right thing would have been to let him win. But it's not an argument that appeals to many people. Sometimes people are well entitled to vote against their economic interests.

One of the factors that clearly swayed the referendum and has exacerbated the ill-feeling in metropolitan circles is the immigration issue. That's a shame too. For many years, widespread and perfectly reasonable concerns about immigration that would have been shared by the political classes in the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s (do you remember the fuss about whether to let everyone in Hong Kong come to the UK?) became taboo among the political classes and dismissed as bigoted, racist and so on. (The "racist" accusation would have looked pretty odd in the 1980s: you're saying that not liking white people from rich countries coming to the UK is racist?) No one calls the people of St Ives 'bigoted' for wanting a ban on second homes, but Gillian Duffy got called bigoted by the Prime Minister for raising immigration, and I don't think they are that different.

I didn't share those concerns. But then immigration works for me. Look at my life and you can see various stereotypes involving using east European domestic labour, enjoying foreign food and so on. Also, I work in a profession essentially protected from people who don't speak English as their first language and I am not too reliant on public services for much of my day to day life. Even driving up house prices potentially helps me. Plus, I like variety, difference, foreign travel, novelty etc etc. 

For my part I don't regard people who have different tastes from me (who lose out when pubs close and Polish and halal shops open in their place, for example, and who gain more pleasure from continuity and the familiar), or have different experiences of wage growth or access to public services, as being bad or irrational in having a different attitude to immigration from me. I suspect some people do. That's a shame.

(My suggestion for lowering the emotional temperature of that discussion would be that rather than saying that there is 'us' and 'them' and 'they' are the bigots, we accept that we are all susceptible to NIMBYism in one form or another (Hampstead and McDonalds; Boston and Poles), and that that's perfectly natural. No one bridles so much at the word NIMBY. There's no harm in suggesting anyway...)

Also, it would be amazing if the EU, uniquely among international political and economic compromises, produced only winners and no losers. I don't begrudge the losers their desire to change things, and I hope no one else does either. (And I'm a little surprised that so many left-wing people suddenly seem to regard international free trade as an unmitigated benefit for poor people simply because it is EU free trade rather than TTIP or WTO free trade.)

I'd be very sorry to see anyone breaking up the UK just because of something like this. But an independent Scotland or a united Ireland is a matter for the Scots and the Irish. Either the nations want to stay together or they don't, and if the EU is what we disagree about then at least that is something of substance rather than the nothingness of the last Scottish referendum. (By the way, does the date 2016 put you in mind of a 100 year anniversary of another country deciding to leave a huge and successful free-trade area?)

Some people are angry at the leading individuals. I'm not. Granted, Boris looks like an opportunist. But so is Jeremy Corbyn: they were both saying what they do not believe, but Boris is better at doing that and that makes him more successful. And Gove is not an opportunist. He and his wife have risked the friendship of the Cameron family for no personal gain that I can see. He believes in what he says, as I suspect Farage does too. Whether Cameron believed what he was saying is less clear to me (again, he is more successful than Corbyn) but I can't see that he was dishonourable. Foolish maybe ... 

Moreover, we should be pleased that the pro-exit position in our country is represented by sensible mainstream politicians like Gisela Stuart and Michael Gove. Other European countries do not have that luxury, leaving a respectable view to be represented by un-respectable people. Even Farage, while unattractive in many ways, is essentially harmless. I see reasons for optimism here, not anger or despair.

All in all, I'm really sorry that the Remainers' dislike of Leavers is so strong but I can't quite understand it. (I suspect Leavers dislike Remainers too, but I just don't see so many Leavers and they do not regard themselves as among friends on Facebook.) I see decent reasons for each side. So did David Goodhart. The country may have made a great mistake (although Zhou Enlai would tell us it's a bit too early to be certain) but we should avoid making things worse.

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