Tuesday, 12 July 2016

How wrong was Leave?

Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
  “That is not it at all,
  That is not what I meant, at all.”

Those lines from Prufrock came to mind as I was reading this, a piece by Matthew Parris about (what else?) Brexit. What he says is interesting and challenging (I'll tell you more about it below), but the overall flavour is one of disappointment and disgust.

Parris thinks that those who proposed Leave in answer to the "overwhelming question"should now be deep in regret, turning to the window and murmuring that that is not what they meant at all. I am not sure I agree. So I want to tease apart what Parris says and see where he might be mistaken.

Doing that will take a few posts. Before I start, I want to say why this matters. The story of how Brexit happened is likely to be one of those political stories that "everyone knows", even if what everyone knows might not quite be right. Other examples: appeasement was well-intentioned but doomed to fail; 1940 was our Finest Hour; Suez was always a bad idea; going to the IMF in the 1970s was a national embarrassment; Thatcher had to break the power of the unions; Blair should never have gone to war in Iraq. A political culture needs stories like these. Indeed, one of most important things that brings a country together and distinguishes it from its neighbours is a shared understanding, capable of expression in short, 1066-and-all-that stories, of what happened in the past that matters and why it happened. We will need a Brexit story.

But I don't want the story of Brexit to be Parris' story, a story of bad people and useful idiots. I think we have a better story to tell.

Let us go then, you and I ...


We start with Parris' article. Here's the nub of it.

"Anti-immigrant feeling won it for Leave, and they [the Leave leaders] know it. They used it, rode it and are complicit in it. I’ve been dismayed to see people I’ve respected descend to this. I never thought either that the reserves of xenophobia in England were so strong, nor that people who should know better would play upon them with such careless cynicism. I was doubly naive."

Parris mentions an angry CNN interview of Daniel Hannan by Christiane Amanpour. I've seen it - it is angry. It includes vox pops with unpleasant idiots, one of whom says that the referendum was about "stopping the Muslims coming into this country" and adds, moronically, "the movement of people in Europe, fair enough, but not Africa ...", while another says "foreigners - kick 'em all out". It is not comfortable watching, to put it mildly.

Parris notes that Daniel Hannan firmly said that he had never used anti-immigration or anti-immigrant language. Parris goes on to say:

"I’m sure the record will bear Daniel out. I doubt he’s a racist or wants sharp reductions in immigration. He will have been fastidious in his language. But his rage was instructive. Beneath the furious denials and the angry demands for chapter and verse was the rage of a man in acute personal discomfort about the company he has kept and the currents in society whose cause it has become his lifetime’s work to champion, while carefully disavowing what drives them. Amanpour hardly landed a blow on Hannan because she did not put the most wounding charge: that he has ridden a tiger, and knows the tiger he rides. He — and I use him only as an eloquent example — raises his hands in repudiation of the destination he hears his followers bawl for, yet offers to take them halfway there. He has only argued (as he shouted at Amanpour) for people to ‘take back control’.

It won’t wash. Not when you know why they want to take back control. [...] I realise that to democratic theorists ‘control’ may be a pure and overriding good in itself. Most people, though, want it for what they can do with it. If millions of my fellow Britons had not wanted to stop immigrants coming here, Leave would never have won. We may argue the toss as to whether the crowd is using the intellectuals to clear a path for them, or the intellectuals are using the crowd to carry them aloft. I’d call the relationship symbiotic. Both know what’s going on.

I once asked Enoch Powell whether, no racist himself, he ever felt squeamish about some who cheered his speeches. He replied — to laughter from our audience — that in politics you take support from wherever it comes. The reply diminished him
."

It's a powerful piece from Parris. As I say, I want to deal with it bit by bit. For this post, I will only make two points.

First, Parris' words about Hannan are ill-chosen. "I doubt he's a racist ... fastidious in his language" - those are the words of someone keeping open the possibility of making serious accusations. It's unwarranted and it's wrong - indeed, it is pretty much what Parris is accusing Hannan and others of doing, nodding and winking at the bad actions of others.

I hope I don't need to tell you that Hannan is no racist - check for yourself, if you want. And the point is wider than that. The leading lights of the Leave campaign are not xenophobes. The thing that kept the likes of Daniel Hannan working away for years and years was British sovereignty, not immigration. Look at Gisela Stuart, for crying out loud! Steve Hilton! How long has it been since someone mentioned Mrs Farage's origins or Boris Johnson's ancestry? (Only on the Remain side is it permissible to 'diss' people because of their ancestry or where they went to school.) Frank Field! Lord Owen! Come on. Even if Parris' charge that these people rode an unpleasant tiger is ultimately borne out, there is no need for sly insinuations that, say, Michael Gove is a racist. That need be no part of the story we tell ourselves about how Brexit happened.

Second, I want to separate out the strands of Parris' central charge to show what I will be responding to in subsequent posts. As I see it, there are four:
(1) it was immigration 'wot won it' for Leave;
(2) people don't want 'control' over immigration, they want less immigration - much less;
(3) that is itself morally wrong - it is xenophobic; and
(4) to welcome the support of such people - to turn a blind eye to their real motives - is reprehensible.

I think the Leavers are entitled to challenge each of those strands. In short, there is time yet for a hundred visions and revisions.

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