I became aware of Britain’s membership of the EU in the late 1970s. Living in a very insular and conservative part of the country the European Community, as it then was, offered an opportunity to familiarise oneself with places culturally unfamiliar but without the ‘overseas’, ‘commonwealth’ and entirely ‘foreign’ baggage that was so ingrained in public culture in than time and place.
I took a ‘Europe’ course in my Geography degree in the years before the Maastricht Treaty and learned of a regional project based in a desire to forestall the tendency of rival sovereignties to go to war and also to generate a common project of social democracy. In those days of Thatcherism, learning about diverse and sometimes remarkably socially-progressive governments co-operating with each other opened up a different politics of the possible from what seemed to me to be a pathological free market government and a corporatist and creaking Labour party. It also introduced me to the actually possibility of Green parties having power, and coalition politics. European structural funds went into Britain’s post-industrial and peripheral regions.
Of course, after the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 we have seen stronger economic integration based in currency union, deficit and inflation controls. Even then, the mobility of peoples within the EU and the growing cultural Europeanisation that this country underwent seemed to mollify the ratcheting up of what was – and is – clearly a regionalism driven by a European capitalist heartland.
The majority of critiques of the EU from the Left were based on a kind of implicit assurance that leaving the EU was not a possibility or that aspects of the European project could be improved. During the terrible years of the 1990s in which Balkanisation and civil war broke out in eastern Europe, the EU offered accession to new states. Again, this was based on both a liberal project of peace and integration, and a conditionalities related to the freedom of capital, currency integration, and external financial oversight.
Hardly a perfect project. Certainly a ‘neoliberal’ regionalism. Also, based in a set of political institutions that are not strongly representative, often wastefully bureaucratic and sometimes corrupt. And, importantly, also a project that was based on strong exclusions – fortress Europe – as places on Europe’s borders collapsed and people fled in search of peace and a better life. The Europe of fences, police lines, and cantonment is hardly a pleasing image of European enlightenment.
But, it is difficult to feel that we have gained more than we have lost as a result of the vote to leave. It’s not as if authoritarian government practices, marketization, social differentiation, and xenophobia were especially European. In many ways, they seem especially British. ‘Social Europe’ and a certain European cosmopolitanism were in part driven by the EU and it was easy to see in the 1990s and 2000s a reaction against ‘Europe’ based in a dislike of other nationalities or the regulation of business. The unpleasant things about the EU are equally if not more unpleasant things about Britain.
The referendum campaigns themselves have been thoroughly depressing. It has been a referendum based in a simple choice defined by a limp-wristed Stay and a venal Leave. ‘We want our country back, we want our borders back, we want the power back’ offered a powerful emotional rhetoric. The Stay campaign’s ‘well-being and stability’ messaging was more empirically robust (albeit still contentious) but less persuasive.
The referendum – an outcome of Cameron’s need to pacify his own party – was legislated for during a time when dominant and centrist party politics was being strongly destabilised. A general cynicism with ‘politicians’, a growing fear of immigration, the rise (and fall) of far right parties and organisations, and of course the effects of recession on working people have all contributed to a major change in Britain’s political sociology. The referendum was a bipolar choice in the midst of political instability and substantial lack of clarity about the meaning of the choice being taken.
The EU has always been complicated for Britain – the 1975 referendum (in which 67% voted ‘In’) highlighted splits in both major parties, and EU membership has been riven with contention throughout our time as a member in a way that is thoroughly unlike other ‘core’ member states. Furthermore, the notion that if ‘the people’ are given all the facts they will make the right choice is naïve. Referendums do not solve problems or generate consensus, they are snapshots. Referendums make an Event of politics, and heighten passions. Political discourses are always emotional, highly value-laden, performative – and in part why the ‘independence’ narratives of Farage and others did hit a note. Part of this clearly relied on racialised appeals based in fear of immigration, terrorism, Islam, blackness in descending degrees of ugliness.
Only slightly more comfortable than the coded racism of some of the Leave campaigners was the prejudice expressed by some in the Remain camp concerning the Leave voters. Voting leave is not racist. People who voted leave are not stupid. I have witnessed no small measure of class prejudice within liberal Remain camps who characterise working class people as racist or easily duped. Large numbers of people suffer what appears to be endless poverty and hardship, decaying public services, and a weak connection to any organisation that claims to represent their interests. Voting leave seems understandable in these circumstances, especially when campaigners – entirely wrongly – identify immigration as the problem and ‘independence’ as the solution. That people like Farage, Boris Johnson and Gove could head a campaign that appealed to poor people is a comment on this country’s political parties, as much as the mindset of the poor, weak, and downtrodden. And, of course, some people are xenophobic, bigoted, and intolerant.
Nevertheless, many ordinary and reasonably decent people have fucked up by voting Leave. The referendum has left a political terrain in which the Conservative Party will likely move to the right. The economy is likely to go through a period of instability and decline, aspects of which will hit the poor because crisis is always redistributed downwards. And, fundamentally, immigration is not the cause of poor British people’s plight. The three major causes of that are the financial crisis of 2008, the accrual of massive debts by the government in an attempt to bail out banks, and the austerity measures imposed by the Government. We have not ‘left’ this situation. On the contrary.
But, it is not the end of the world. Everyday life will soon return to normal. Westminster will now likely make an effort to normalise politics. Ordinary people will by and large get on with each other. But, Exit will come and when it does the faulty, clunky, unequal European project might well seem both more attractive and, of course, no longer our concern.