The EU is not slavery

So, poorer Brexiters voted to be worse off? There’s nothing wrong in that by Gary Younge (the Guardian, Friday)

Monochrome drawing from a magic lantern series based on Uncle Tom's Cabin,of a white man, Simon Legree, assaulting Uncle Tom, who has been knocked to the ground.
Uncle Tom is assaulted by Simon Legree, the man he is sold to after Augustine St Clare dies.

This piece makes the case that working-class Leave voters were voted by ‘values’ rather than self-interest and that this should be seen as a valid political choice, comparable to well-off liberals voting for policies that would raise their taxes to pay for services or welfare for others. He starts out by citing a moment in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Tom tells his owner, Augustine St Clare, who had told him that he could never have earned the comforts he provided, that he would rather have a poor house and clothes than the best when the best belonged to someone else. This echoes previous comparisons I saw in which the EU took the place of a violent relationship and that someone might be justified in leaving even though it results in hardship for them and even their children as well. However neither of these comparisons stack up.

Frankly, if it was a white man making this analogy with slavery, he would be ridiculed and rightly so (the editor is a white woman). We are not slaves; we are not owned by Europe; we are not oppressed by Europe. We do not have EU police or soldiers walking our streets. Usually, when we see signs of the EU’s presence, it is because they have contributed money to a major project which could be anything from a major road to an arts centre. In other cases, it is a document that allows us to travel freely in Europe, or drive anywhere in Europe, or in another way access services (such as healthcare) anywhere in Europe. These benefits are not the EU’s financial largesse; they are not things Europe provides for us so as to buy our servitude. They are things agreed mutually between our government and other countries’, such that Spanish, German or Lithuanian citizens might have the same rights here as we have there. It’s a mutual arrangement between various elected governments, sometimes backed by referendums and sometimes not; it was not imposed on anyone by force. We are still a sovereign nation; we have a seat on the UN Security Council in our own right, as does France. We still control our borders, as anyone who has had to pass through them will know.

The other problem with the comparison is that it is not only a vote to make oneself poorer; it is to make others poorer as well, sometimes disastrously so. This is, frankly, why the “it’s the people’s will” argument does not stack up: where does that argument end? If the people vote to start a war of aggression or to annihilate a whole bunch of their neighbours because of their race or religion, does a referendum or a prior manifesto commitment justify that? I think it does not. Given the widespread reports that people voted Leave because they believed that making the country poorer was a price worth paying to get rid of immigrants, or even just out of spite for people who have jobs (not necessarily immigrants) when they do not, there really is a need for the adults in the room to act their age. People may know what they want, or think they do, but it is not only they who will feel the consequences of their vote; it is everyone, and the same people pontificating who said they voted for ‘sovereignty’ or because they want “Britain to be British again” will not be so confident when the cost of basic food goes through the roof or they cannot get treated for a preventable or at least survivable illness for lack of medicine or healthcare staff.

And — not for the first time of saying this — the real stumbling block in the way of stopping this calamity is not the public. Everything that is said about public opinion is speculation, often influenced by the bias of the person saying it; as Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying, “there is no such thing as public opinion, only published opinion”. There are still strong arguments for at least a further referendum, especially once any deal is agreed, because its terms were entirely unknown when the 2016 vote took place. The real stumbling block is Brexiteers in parliament who have been empowered and emboldened by the referendum result and have taken to misrepresenting the 51% vote, 2½ years ago, in favour of leaving the EU as a decisive vote in favour of a clean break and to trading with the world on WTO terms when we are not even a member of the WTO in our own right. They have had the prospect of untrammelled power dangled in front of them — repealing the Human Rights Act is the next step for them — and are loath to see it snatched away. The simple maths are that 51% is not equal or equivalent to 100%. This situation where the 51% take away the rights of the 49% is a classic argument against pure democracy.

And yes, as Younge acknowledges in his article, the political class have been active in forging the myths of a golden past; but it was not only the political class but also the media which had been fomenting hostility to the European project since the 1980s, which makes the revelations about Vote Leave overspending, Russian money or Cambridge Analytica less relevant than many people think they are. Regardless of whether impoverished ex-miners in Yorkshire thought they were voting for a revolution or sticking it to the Establishment by voting to leave the EU, the reality is that the same ruling class will still be in power afterwards, and be more powerful than ever before because of lack of regulations or even human rights, if they get their way over that as well. This is what makes the capitulation of so much of the Left to that prospect incomprehensible; as a minor member of the WTO, we will be much less free to pass laws to ensure the public good than we are now, where they impact on international trade. I have a feeling that people smell defeat in the air, and that they have been betrayed by the leaders they trusted, do not want to admit they were wrong and want to recast it as a victory.

But also, Younge engages in the typical sneering at the “liberal elite” which consists of people who “think that they know what’s better for working-class people than working-class people themselves do”. There have been many analyses of the failures of well-educated liberal politicians (often not as liberal as they made out) who failed to convince the population with facts, and indeed their more ignorant contender used their education against them and won (Al Gore, for example). Quite apart from the stereotype that leave voters were poor, that poor or working-class voters are ignorant and that not being ignorant is a sign of being part of the elite, which are all far from the truth, sometimes a minority does know better than the majority. The matters at stake here are too big to leave to public opinion: the whole economy, the health service, peace in Northern Ireland, even peace on the Mainland given the threat from the Far Right which would be heightened in a situation of high unemployment. Our politicians must have the courage to tell the public that Brexit is a dangerous and unnecessary course, that there is no Brexit deal that is better than the one we have now and that all the problems commonly attributed to the EU are matters of British policy and can be solved without leaving. And if there is no major party willing to say this at a general election, they will have betrayed the public instead of serving them.

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