The only arguments that matter in politics today are the arguments on the right. The only futures that are possible to imagine are those offered by the different strands of right-wing thought.
The right’s arguments are not good to my mind. Nor are the futures it offers desirable. It is just that the right’s opponents are all but absent from the debate. The future of the country is up for grabs, but only the right hand of England is reaching up to seize it.
The journalist in me almost hopes that the ‘leave’ campaign wins. The lies it has told will then be clear, and the liberal press will have years of fun tearing into Johnson, Gove and Farage.
They promised a bright economic future, and we will make sure that they are held personally liable for every disruption of trade and fall in tax revenues. They promised extraordinary sums of money for the NHS, to keep the subsidies for farmers, to cut taxes, to cut fuel duty, so that we will have the paradise the British have always dreamed of: Scandinavian levels of public service and American levels of tax. We will hammer them when their promised paradise never arrives, and make every tax rise and spending cut their responsibility.
They promised that they would end the free movement of European labour, which means that Britain will not have access to the single market, which means that we will make sure that every lost job in every exporter will be down to them. They played on the dislike of established immigrants for new arrivals – the least discussed prejudice in multi-cultural societies, by the way – and promised British blacks and Asians that Brexit would allow them to admit their friends and family members from the sub-continent and Caribbean. Naturally, we will take great pleasure in proving the worthlessness of their words once they are in power. Above all, they promised that unravelling Britain from the European Union would be easy. And as that last and greatest lie unravels, in turn, and Britain is bogged down in years of negotiations, we will point out that the Brexiters’ obsessions have stopped us facing the great questions of our day.
The stories will write themselves. If I allow my personal interest to trump the national interest, I can console myself with the thought that a ‘leave’ victory will keep me and my colleagues in work into the 2020s.
However much pleasure we take in exposing the mendacity of the Brexit campaign, we will not be able to conceal the fact that the populist right will have won a tremendous victory. I want us to stay primarily because the worst nations and leaders in the world will welcome British withdrawal. But my second reason is that the worst people in Britain will be as delighted. Like the increasingly panicky Labour MPs on the news today, I know a sustained assault on labour rights and environmental protections, and a resurgence of white identity politics, will follow Brexit.
Defending what you have is a sensible political strategy. If I were an American, I would deplore Hillary Clinton’s record but give her presidential campaign my unconditional support. Stopping the catastrophe of a Trump presidency would be my sole political priority.
Stopping the Eurosceptic right in Britain, strikes me as an equally essential defensive manoeuvre. There is no shame in it. In politics, as in so much else, you are lucky if you get half of what you want. Repelling the assaults of your opponents is a sensible strategy. Most of the time it is the only strategy available.
In the case of Britain’s membership of the European Union, however, it is hardly an inspiring or even honourable strategy. Labour politicians and their supporters are saying, in effect, ‘we know we cannot win an election, therefore we must rely on the European Union to defend the rights we cannot protect in a free democratic contest.’
It feels like a football fan recommending match fixing.
If ‘remain’ wins, meanwhile, there will be scant consolation for the liberal-left, either. It will be a victory for David Cameron. He and George Osborne have carried the weight of this campaign, and they have done it for traditional conservative reasons: to protect our economic order and national security. If they win, their version of right-wing politics will have triumphed.
This is hardly an enticing prospect for a left that sees itself as committed to radical change and the power of dissent, but is in truth no threat to anyone. It is a measure of left-wing failure that the most successful ‘dissenters’ in recent history have not been the radicals celebrated in pat little tributes on Radio 4 and in the left-wing press, but the line of genuine insurgents, which began in the 1990s with James Goldsmith, and went on through the Tory Eurosceptics, who wrecked the Major administration, through to Johnson, Farage and Gove today.
Even if they fail, they will have come within an inch of provoking an economic, diplomatic and constitutional crisis beyond the dreams of the radical left.
In short, the Daily Mail and Telegraph have presented a far greater threat to the established order than the Morning Star and Guardian. They are giving Russia what it wants, and threatening the profitability of big business and the City.
It is too easy to blame the appalling leadership of Jeremy Corbyn for the left’s current irrelevance. It may be the case that Corbyn no more believes in his heart that Britain should stay in the EU than Boris Johnson believes in his that Britain should leave. It is certainly the case that whatever his true beliefs Corbyn is a sectarian politician who lacks the essential ability of any successful leader to appeal beyond his cult.
But there is a far deeper problem that Corbyn’s removal will not solve. To simplify wildly the main current in liberal-left thought is universalist. We believe that rights are for everyone. Logically we are committed to the position that a new immigrant to Britain, for instance, should be as entitled to benefits and public services as a British citizen born and bred here. Large chunks of the British electorate could not disagree more. They are communitarians. They believe that natives should have greater rights; that you have to belong before you can receive.
The populist right can thus pose as the patriotic friends of the masses. That they are lying, ought to go without saying. It will be the working and middle classes who will suffer most from a post-Brexit recession. It will be poor and cowered workers, who will lose what limited employment, holiday and maternity protections they enjoy. I wish Labour had a leadership capable of saying so clearly, rather than standing by while the hard right runs riot.
But even if it did, the fact remains that until the liberal-left finds a way of showing it understands nationalist resentments, it will lose. At present, that task seems wholly beyond it, and England in particular is in danger of going the way of so many continental countries where the only choice that matters is between the xenophobic right and the neo-liberal right.
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