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Why I exited Brexit and decided to vote Remain

in Referendum by
France's 'Front National'

Let’s be honest. There’s something deeply seductive about gaining your independence from anything.

The prospect of going it alone lights up practically every pleasure centre in the British brain. It’s the memory of leaving a hated school and taking control of your own life. It’s the recollection of telling a control freak of a boss where he can shove his job, before making a hero’s exit. It’s the gleeful desire to escape your future OAP’s home for the afternoon and get sozzled at the bar of your local boozer.

Well, that’s how my brain responds to the prospect of even the smallest sliver of independence. And as a middle aged fart of mixed English, Scottish, Irish and Belgian ancestry (to name but a few), I’m about as British as anyone.

So, even though it took me months to commit to one side or the other of the Referendum debate, it surprised no-one that I came out in favour of Brexit.

And when asked at the bar of my local boozer, or in the echo chambers of social media, why I wanted Britain to leave the EU, I would cite two reasons. First: I hated the undemocratic structure imposed on us. Second: we live in a world where to be agile and to respond to events quickly and independently gives you the edge, whether you’re a country, a company or an individual.

I still think those things, by the way. But something happened when the referendum campaign got properly underway.

I mostly stayed aloof from the vast majority of mudslinging and disinformation from both sides of the EU debate. Frankly, I found most of it wearisome and childish.

But what I did read or listen to made me think about the wider implications of Britain leaving the EU.

First I wondered what the hell would happen to Scotland (and by extension) Northern Ireland.  When the Scottish independence referendum was reaching fever pitch, I was desperately worried that the UK would lose an essential part of its – and my own – being and identity.

And I realised that this much more heartfelt stance of mine was contradictory to Brexit. We really are, in the words of that cheesy slogan, Better Together. Sure, it hasn’t been a smooth relationship since 1603 or 1707 (whichever you prefer), but we’ve matured into it, to the benefit of both nations. By comparison, we’ve barely given the EU a chance.

I was certain that if Britain voted to leave Europe, Scotland would walk out on the Union. They’d rebel against England as England rebelled against the EU. And rebellion is what much of the current referendum heartache is about, right?

Losing Scotland would be bad, but the clincher for my change of heart was the effect Brexit would have on the rest of Europe.

If you’re familiar with my online witterings, you’ll know I’m in the process of polishing my French skills. It’s a long process and it reminds me of those pensioners hired by furniture makers of centuries past, who were paid to gently rub their hands on chairs to give them a patina. It’s slow work.

But I digress. One of the things I do to get my French up to par is to dip into papers like Le Monde and Le Figaro. And one of the side benefits of doing so is that you get a good sideways glance at your own country – it’s a bit like reading the Irish Times, but less boring.

So when I read in detail how Marine Le Pen was fomenting for Brexit as a prelude for France’s independence, backed by her similarly minded and unsavoury pals on the far-right in Austria and elsewhere, I really began to get the collywobbles.

Bloated, expensive and riven with incompetence that the EU is, it does at the very least act as a brake on extremism, whether nationalist, socialist or religious. It would be a barrier to le Pen victimising les musulmans in France. It would block any far-right basket case of a member country from stripping away the rights and freedoms of any minority – however imperfectly. And, in a fantasy world in which America was a member, it would tell Donald Trump to fuck off (and stay fucked off) when he tried to build a wall between the US border and Mexico.

And there’s the nub. The rise of the far right on the continent, and the institutionalisation of anti-semitism in significant chunks of the Left, are the things that worry me most in today’s world.

And to risk those things escalating into a divided and hate fuelled Europe because of your gleeful desire to tell your school, your boss, your institution or the EU to go and shove it… that is something I simply can’t do.

Especially when the positive case for Brexit has been written on the back of a fag packet.

So I’m voting Remain. I just hope the result is close enough to jolt the European project into the major reform it so seriously needs.

The Trumpification of British Politics Will seceding from the E.U. make the U.K. great again?

in Referendum by
(Francesco Guidicini:News Syndication:Redux

A few miles from my home in Gloucestershire, England, there is a roadside advertisement that urges voters in this Thursday’s E.U. referendum, or Brexit vote, to “Take Back Our Country.” The same sign, of course, could as easily be found in any of Donald Trump’s strongholds across the United States. Indeed, the forces that may yet propel the U.K. to a suicidal leap from the E.U. are nearly identical to those that might conceivably elevate Trump to the White House. “Take Back Our Country,” in some ways, is merely British for “Make America Great Again.”

Continue reading on the Vanity Fair Hive.

Henry Porter at the vigil staged to honour murdered British Member of Parliament Jo Cox, in London's Trafalgar Square
Henry Porter at the vigil staged to honour murdered British Member of Parliament Jo Cox, in London’s Trafalgar Square

Part of Something Bigger Its better to Remain, and fight to change what we don't like

in Referendum by
(creative commons)

Whatever your principled objections to the EU and your sound reasons for voting leave, the effect of a win for leave, as a result of the way the campaign has gone, will be horrible – to strengthen and encourage the worst far-right and racist tendencies in this country and also in Europe.

I don’t want to add to the welter of arguments and factual claims. I just want to add a consideration and two reasons which are important to why I am voting Remain, and a note on migration (as it has played such a large part in the debate).

The consideration is that, indeed, this is a very important decision, once in a generation. So all the short-term considerations seem to me to be beside the point; the horror of a Boris/Gove government in our immediate future, the immediate economic costs, short-term concerns over anything at all. A lot of the political reasons fall away too. The question is what is going to be the best choice for the next period of history, not just for this country, but for others as well.

A note on migration: of course this is not about refugees. There is no refugee crisis for us. Anyway, our obligations to refugees would be the same in or out. A friend persuaded me that there is a real downside for some people in relation to EU freedom of movement. He works in the London building trade and his experience was that recent Eastern European immigration had depressed wages and reduced work. Of course he’s right, one capitalist reason for freedom of movement in the EU was always so that it could be used to put pressure on workers’ wages and conditions (with the labour movement requiring minimum cross-European workers’ rights as a quid pro quo).

Indeed, our capitalist rulers have always used immigration for this purpose. Before we joined the EU, it was from Ireland and then the Caribbean. We can be sure that if we do leave they will carry on doing this in one way or another. All I can say is look at the upside – we have freedom to move and work all over Europe, which has in the past been a good thing for British builders and still is a very good thing for everyone: workers, students, and retired people alike. Just ask the two million of us currently living and working in Europe.

My first reason for wanting to remain is a question of a particular way (only one way) of looking at the project. War is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to human societies, though recently we in this country have mostly been lucky. It happens a lot, especially in this era of nation states, and its consequences are appalling. There has mostly been a war (or several wars) going on in Europe for hundreds of years, and the same is true of other continents. According to the Nuremberg judges, waging aggressive war is the worst war crime of all. The EU was conceived from the start as a way of gaining peace, by means of a close partnership of nations secured by economic advantage and dependency. It has been extraordinarily successful over sixty years. Other areas across the globe have tried to follow its example. Outside the territory of the EU, war is still the norm in many places. Looked at in this way, I think the EU project is hugely important for the world as a whole, as an attempt to solve a problem that must be solved if we humans are to survive. I think we should be part of trying to make it work.

Secondly, and even more fundamental; I have a lot of issues with the EU. It is undemocratic, technocratic, liberal capitalist in its roots, and currently wedded (like the UK) to noxious US-style neoliberalism and austerity. The experience of Greece this last couple of years made me waver. But these don’t seem to me to be good reasons to leave, rather than to fight to change it for the better.

If we leave, we are choosing to be one country instead of part of a continent. We are inevitably going to be strongly affected by Europe, but we will no longer be a player. We will be much more dependent on the US, culturally and politically, at the same time as having made ourselves much less important to them. It feels wrong. It is to choose the negative: isolation, rather than inclusion; refusal, rather than engagement; to turn away, rather than towards.


Dear Brexit Friends Can friendship survive a vote to leave?

in Referendum by

My dear Brexit friends,

How difficult this referendum has been for us. I know at least six of you who say you are going to vote for Britain to leave the EU.

As you know, I take a different view and will be voting enthusiastically to remain. I am completely convinced on several counts, economic and political stability being the main two. I also believe the European project – despite its obvious flaws – has a more generous, optimistic and progressive character than what is being offered by those who desire Brexit.

Where does that leave us?

The first thing is that we are still good pals, I hope. Some, but not all of you, are fishing friends, though I have to say I am going off fishing because, like at least one of you, I find being on the river bank sometimes reminds me of the destruction of the British countryside and the loss of habitat and species. It would be true to say therefore that the primary reason I go fishing is to see you.

There have been arguments this year. Two or three of them were quite sharp exchanges and certainly I have been guilty of fighting my position very fiercely indeed.  You see, I don’t think that this is ordinary debate. As I say elsewhere on this site, it is not simply a choice between two equally valid options, because there is a demonstrably better case for remaining in Europe than the romantic leap in the dark that some of you propose.

I use the word ‘demonstrably’ because the benefits of the status quo are obviously more easily identified than the benefits of being outside Europe, about which we have almost no evidence. That is one of the reasons I am so mystified by your choice. “The man of conservative temperament,” said the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott in one of my favourite passages “believes that a known good is not lightly surrendered for an unknown better. He is not in love with what is dangerous and difficult; he is unadventurous; he has no impulse to sail unchartered seas.”

I am just astonished that you six – so smart, risk averse and prudent in everything you do – are prepared to throw caution to the wind. This isn’t just a fling; this is for the rest of our lives. A future generation may eventually rescue the situation if we come out, but not in time for us. We were the fools who threw it all away, despite the freedom and prosperity Europe has given us since 1975. 

So what, you may say to all this. HP’s opinion is no better than mine and he can take a running jump with this bloody letter.

I would accept that at General Election time, when we are more tolerant of our political differences and we know that we can change our mind next time round, and when, by the way, I wouldn’t be telling you what I think about health or housing policy, or any of the rest of it. 

But this is different. 

The vote tomorrow is more about a contest of values and outlook than it is about politics. That’s why everyone is taking it more seriously than a general election. I don’t want to belong to a mean, narrow, slightly xenophobic country that is living in the past and regarding its neighbours suspiciously though net curtains. I like the challenges Europe presents – the need for us to compromise and to work on problems together. I like the stability Europe gives us. I like the freedom of movement – for me and the other 500 million people. And I like the thrilling sense of possibility that being part of Europe inspires in me. As I said at the start, generosity, optimism and progress is what the pro-EU stance encapsulates and these are the things I stand for in this debate. 

For me these values are superior to mere political opinion. They are as important to me as liberty, justice and democracy. 

But clearly I have to accept that you, dear friends, do not agree with me. You have another set of priorities: I must assume your values are different to mine and that you do not share the real horror I have of Brexit and of the turmoil that we will bring to our neighbours. Incidentally, there is a good reason that all far right and fascist parties in Europe want us to leave the EU: we will give them considerable encouragement if we do. 

Where does that leave us? Well, I have had to think about that very hard because I happen not to accept the orthodoxy that friendship must continue come what may. At least two of you have said to me that friends should never fall out over politics – I agree. But, as I say, the vote tomorrow isn’t about politics. So the usual wisdoms do not apply. It seems harsh, perhaps, but at least I honour the idea of friendship with the belief that it is voluntary and may therefore periodically come under review.

When I mentioned this thought over the last few weeks, people have looked slightly horrified and started quoting E.M. Foster at me. “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend,” he wrote in What I Believe, “I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” This is not strictly applicable because we are not talking about love of country. However, I know what they mean: they believe love of one’s friends should trump any other allegiance. 

However, there must be a point where that can’t be right. For instance, in the Thirties when members of the British upper and working classes began to look enviously towards Germany and marched around in black shirts, terrorizing the East End. That was a deal breaker, if ever there is one. For me, the support of any totalitarian regime or practice is intolerable, as I think it is for most people. 

So, we can perhaps agree that there is a point where breaking off relations, or allowing them to lapse is legitimate and not simply a betrayal of the friendship.

The outcome of this debate is so important that, yes, people will find that they cannot continue the relationships they had before. I regard the Leave camp as being prey to a romantic spasm at best, and a rather sinister arrogance and xenophobia at worst. Though I may understand some of it, I do not believe it is a coherent approach to Britain’s future and so I deplore it. 

Of course, I’m aware that some of you will change your vote in these last few hours, having had much fun casting a fly over me. But some of you will continue with this madness. You really meant what you said. 

Perhaps quiet dismay is the only response to that, and whatever the result, we should get on with our imperfect lives and our imperfect friendships and leave the awfully venomous atmosphere of the referendum campaign in the past.

Like most people, I have absolutely hated every moment of it and object to the amount of brain time it has taken these past three months, but this doesn’t mean I will forget the arguments, or the sharp differences between us. That may also be true of you, for this obviously is a two way street. 

I hope things work out for us, and that we go on seeing each other. I admit that if my side wins I will be a lot more forgiving than if we lose. That makes me a sore loser, I agree, but then I will be in mourning for a project that was as brave and beautiful as anything in European history.

With best wishes,


What the Papers are Saying Not much reading time? Here's a summary of key editorials

in Referendum by
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 18:  British newspaper are displayed for sale on the day that the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems agree a deal on press reform on March 18, 2013 in London, England. A Press regulation deal has been agreed today by Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems following a call for reform in the wake of Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into press ethics and phone hacking. (Photo by Rosie Hallam/Getty Images)

Remain in the EU

 The Guardian

Declared on 9th May
Headline: “David Cameron makes a serious case
Why they want to Remain: The Guardian made its position clear early on, saying it would “make no apology” for insisting on staying in the EU, emphasising the need to speak of Europe as a ‘we’ rather than a ‘they’. It declared on the same day that David Cameron delivered a key speech at the British Museum, marking the beginning of his campaign, and went along with many of the principles he outlined. In contrast to his approach in recent weeks, the Prime Minster’s speech was wide-ranging, full of history and imbued with an internationalist appeal. The paper has argued it was the kind of speech that Cameron should have continued to make throughout the campaign (and Inker has said he ought to make again before the vote). He proclaimed Britain’s fate to be inescapably intertwined with that of Europe, insisted that international stability depends on cooperation with the continent, and contended that the modern world is necessarily made up of large interlocking bodies that involve compromise and hard work.

The Economist

Declared on 16th June
Headline: “Divided We Fall: The Future of Britain and Europe

the economist (david parkins)
Why they want to Remain: The classically liberal magazine’s official line is that: ‘A Vote to Leave the European Union would diminish both Britain and Europe’. It has argued for this from an historical and international perspective, stating that Brexit would mark “a defeat for the liberal order that has underpinned the West’s prosperity”. Britain would not easily handle the economic challenges of an exit, and the purported opportunities presented by leaving are more of a hopeful delusion than a realistic prospect. The UK would be the poorer for it, and because of its interdependence with the continent, so would Europe. The campaign to Leave has played up to ‘Little Englander’ prejudices, especially over immigration, and derided a wide range of official authorities for being representative of the global elite, more worthy of our contempt than our attention. The answer to the European Union’s democratic deficit is to fight for reform from within, no matter how arduous or futile the struggle can often seem. International power-broking is inherently more difficult than domestic politics. The EU has evolved and will continue to do so. If Britain really wanted to lead in Europe, it could.

The Financial Times

Declared on 15th June
Headline: “Britain should vote to stay in the EU
Why they want to Remain: Unsurprisingly, the FT has issued stark warnings about the economic and financial risks of Brexit, most notably through one its star columnists, Martin Wolf, who has consistently emphasized how seriously the predictions of experts must be taken. For not doing so, he’s suggested the Leave campaign might as well be called ‘Project Lie’. It has also taken a greater interest in continental attitudes to the referendum than other publications, highlighting Germany’s worry that a British exit will not only deprive them of a heavyweight counterpart, but trigger similar demands among likeminded nordic and western states, leading to further possible departures. Another of its columnists, Philip Stephens, has argued for the overall economic success of European Union membership, pointing to Britain’s unrelenting progress since it joined as “the sick man of Europe” in 1973. He’s also lamented the anti-establishment ethos of the Leave campaign as “anti-intellectual boorishness”, and likened its scare-mongering over the prospect of Turkish membership to Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

The Times

Declared on 17th June
Headline: “Remaking Europe
Why they want to Remain: The Times’ case for remaining in the European Union is as pragmatic as it is hopeful, calling for a “new alliance of sovereign EU nations dedicated to free trade and reform, led by Britain”. Remaining in the single market, it admits, will be “a pragmatic rather than enthusiastic choice”. Though the future is uncertain, remaining is without doubt the less risky option. Yet because this doesn’t quite stir the heart, the Brexiteers have managed to appear the braver and more exciting outfit, but this doesn’t make them the best or most sensible choice. Historically, the EU has played a crucial role in preserving post-War peace and in drawing formerly eastern bloc countries towards democracy. In spite of which, some of its institutions are certainly “undemocratic, meddling, and short-sighted”, but this is not reason to give up on them in the long-run. The Times has throw down the gauntlet on the question of European reform. David Cameron should ally with other countries to shake the Union out of complacency. The EU might well collapse if it does not reform. In light of which, the Prime Minister could restore and indeed aggrandize his standing by becoming the man who triggers it. Could the mere fact of our tightly fought referendum really bring this about? Whether or not people think so could decide the vote.

Daily Mirror

Declared on 18th June
Headline: “Make the EU Referendum Victory in Europe Day and vote Remain for the sake of the future
( they want to Remain: On 5th July 1945, the day of Britain’s first post-war general election, the Daily Mirror reprinted Philip Zec’s famous V-E Day cartoon. It is a picture of a broken man, returning from the battlefront, bearing a flag marked ‘victory and peace in Europe’. Their slogan then read: ‘Here you are, don’t lose it again!’ The EU is the embodiment of post-war peace and should not be taken for granted. Leavers seeking to ‘get our country back’ want to return to a past that was “unkinder than the present”, and cannot be our future. The future, and our present, is one in which “international organisations are the community halls of the 21st Century global village that we must live in.” The likes of NATO and the UN are not perfect, but we’re yet to devise better methods of protecting the West and striving towards world peace. Such is the case with the EU when it comes to democracy and prosperity. One can’t “magic up” sovereignty by leaving the single market (see Inker – ‘Paradise Regained?’). Immigration control could perhaps be regained, but too many view immigrants with spite instead of gratitude. The Brexiteers’ proposed Australian-style entry system is “designed for countries with migrant populations proportionately larger than ours.” So leaving simply won’t address the problem. Economically, neither side’s forecasts can be trusted. The only certainty is that our economic future is less certain outside of the EU. We must learn from the past, but not live in it.

The Mail on Sunday

Declared on 19th June
Headline: “Vote Remain for a safer, freer, more prosperous – and, yes, and even Greater Britain
Why they want to Remain: Possibly the only editorial to make an outright case for the virtues of supra-national government. Our governments often get things wrong, so the existence of a voice higher up the line isn’t such a bad thing. And nationalMoS2 Template Master independence would come at a price: a period of uncertainty, most likely some tariffs, and definitely financial turmoil. But Leavers are content to make large economic sacrifices in the name of “a rose-tinted freedom”. It’s a tough, globalized world out there, and the UK will have to fight hard if it goes it alone. Not everyone will survive, so is it moral to tell the people that “you may have to suffer for my ideals”? Leavers, however, have rightly gained traction by pointing to the difficulties of reforming the EU. If Cameron’s side wins, he must fight to move it in the right direction. The question of freedom of movement will otherwise continue to gnaw away not only at the Conservative Party, but Europe as a whole. Regardless, the vote is about more than immigration, for which Leavers have no real plan, only “nebulous promises”. Finally, “the human heart yearns for simple solutions and uncomplicated choices”, but these do not exist, especially in today’s world, so “splendid isolation” is not an option. To continue experiencing the growth it has enjoyed since joining the EU, the UK must sit at its top table, not on its sidelines.

The Observer

Declared on 19th June
Headline: “For an international, liberal and open Britain, we need to be part of the EU
Why they want to Remain: Leaving the single market is a great unknown. All we know is that it will probably be bad for us, because it’s been good to us thus far. But the EU not just an economic project, it is an idealistic project, first designed to prevent wars that are now inconceivable. To this extent, it has been a great success, but that doesn’t mean that its time is up. The globalized nature of our world has brought about new and equally important challenges. These challenges are not always local, so nor can sovereignty be. The EU is not perfect, it has many problems and has experienced many failures, but on balance it has overwhelmingly been a force for good. In fact, it is “the world’s most successful example of international co-operation”. It has created the world’s largest market, and because of it many former members of the Soviet Union now belong to the family of nations. Britain has played a large part in this, and as an “economic power and force for liberal democracy”, has a responsibility to the rest of the world to remain undiminished. By leaving, it would fail this count. And Europe would be made the weaker for it. Fragile and threatened, Britain should lead it at the time when it must change in order to survive. Only then can such issues as the inequality caused by globalization be thoroughly addressed. “The case for remaining, then, must not just be framed in the language of economics, but in the wider vocabulary of the world we wish to inhabit.”

Leave the EU

The Sun

Declared on 13th June
Headline: “We urge our readers to beLEAVE in Britain and vote to quit the EU on June 23
Why they want to Leave: Staying in the EU with the ambition of reforming it is the last thing on the mind of The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s other daily paper, which has made a polar opposite case to that of The Times by telling its readers that Europe “cannot (…this is our last chance to remove ourselves from the undemocratic Brussels machine”. The EU has been in decline ever since the UK joined 43 years. It is incompetent at dealing with crises and as a result has made life much worse for many of its members. After all, “Greece is bankrupt…and Italy is in danger of going the same way.” Almost half of Spain’s young people are out of work. If immigration continues to spiral out of control, the future of Britons’ jobs and wages will be much the worse. If the EU’s present makeup does not ensure this, the fact that several more much poorer countries are in the process of joining guarantees it. “Schools, hospitals, roads and housing stock” will be under threat. The tabloid goes on to lambast the Remain campaign, which it states is made up of “the corporate establishment, arrogant Europhiles and foreign banks”. The tirade of warnings from international bodies can largely be ignored because all of them were wrong when they encouraged the UK to join the single currency. “Our country has a glorious history”, proclaims The Sun, “this is our chance to make Britain even greater”.

The Spectator

Declared on 15th June
Headline: “Out – and into the world
Why they want to Leave: Over the course of the campaign, The Spectator has been critical of the tactics employed by Remain, spectatormost especially George Osborne’s manipulation of treasury figures. Their stance is consistent with the position they took on the referendum for continued EEC membership of 1975, and they’ve chosen to use the same internationalist headline they chose then. The magazine feels vindicated in the arguments it made back then, when it expressed worries that economic cooperation would slowly morph into political union. Today, the the European Union’s lack of accountability, combined with its bureaucratic incompetency, means that it is “making the people of our continent poorer and less free”. The sovereignty question cannot simply be overlooked, or redefined out of relevance. The UK’s elected MPs often find themselves processing more orders and paperwork from Brussels than they do from Westminster. Free movement used to be a good idea, but times change and it no longer is, and this should be recognized. The same could be said of the Euro – the evidence is all around us. The West is best protected by NATO and always has been. The reason the rest of Europe refused to grant David Cameron any real concessions, any sight of fundamental reform, is because nobody thought the UK would ever dare take matters into its own hands. “Democracy matters”, concludes The Spectator, and was too hard fought for to surrender now. Vote Leave.

The Sunday Telegraph

Declared on 19th June
Headline: “We must Vote Leave to create a Britain fit for the future
Why they want to Leave: At the core of the case for leaving is ultimately an ambitious vision, while the urge to remain is fundamentally pessimistic. George Osborne’s bullying ‘post-Brexit budget’ is the latest evidence of this, which makes “unconscionable threats” to pensioners. In light of such tactics the population’s fear of leaving is to be expected, but what is surprising is the extent to which Project Fear has been disavowed or wholly ignored. Remain is losing the argument because their case is simply “too weak to sell”. The European Union is a hugely expensive organisation to which to belong and at all times looms around it a sense of perpetual crisis. There should be no reason the UK needs to be a member of the EU in order to trade with it. The Union’s regulatory powers show no sign of being curtailed, and the more often we’re told it has no intention of becoming a single state, the more closely it comes to resembling one. The Prime Minister’s renegotiations achieved nothing, and while he likes to hint at further reform, there is no evidence at all this would be possible. And if we made the choice to remain, there’s no reason why it should be. Once we leave, our own government can handle our worries about Europe. If we don’t like its approach, we will have the power to change it. We will remain a part of Europe, and needn’t fear conflict with it because democracies do not go to war. It is high time we took advantage of the huge opportunities all around the world, which Remain is all too happy to ignore. “The EU belongs to the past…we hope the country chooses the future”.

The Sunday Times

Declared on 19th June
Headline: “Time for Britain to strike a new deal with Europe
sunday timesWhy they want to Leave: A unique call to leave for the sake of reform. Boris Johnson’s early allusions to the option of staging a “double referendum strategy” were not at all daft. Indeed, leaving could be the first step towards the ‘fundamental reform’ that David Cameron promised in his 2013 ‘Bloomberg Speech’. He was right back then to say (as he did, it takes some reminding) that Britain could prosper outside of the EU if it so chose to leave. It was not due to its membership of the European Economic Community that the UK revitalized itself in the 80s, but because of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. One of her achievements was indeed the creation of the single market, but it is flawed and incomplete. Indeed, there are many countries that sell more into the EU than Britain does without having any trade deals with Europe at all. In fact, UK exports have grown at their lowest-ever rate during the period of the single market. The EU has further failed in its handling of the Euro crises, and its attempts to centralize security and defence have been calamitous. Further integration awaits our vote to remain. This is neither in the interests of Britain, nor Europe. A vote to leave, combined with a delayed trigger of Article 50, “is of fundamental importance because in previous crises the EU has been willing to negotiate once a member state has shown it will be pushed no further.” We must help Europe rethink its identity in global terms, just as we’ve been doing over the course of the campaign. Voting to leave is the only way of doing so.

Sunday Express

Declared on 19th June
Headline: “Today’s Britain is strong, dynamic and influential. Let’s keep it that way. Vote Leave.
Why they want to Leave: No matter what happens, this vote will cause “one of the most dramatic shifts of power in political history”. Voting to leave is the right thing to do for those who truly love Europe and everything it stands for. The EU, for all its flaws, has proven itself to be entirely immune to reform. If we remain, it will be able to exercise all the more coercion for not having to deal with the threat of us leaving. It would be taken as a “recommendation for project Europe and a green light for even further integration and expansion”. The reason the Leave campaign has focused so ardently on immigration is because it matters. It matters, quite simply, because it will never be under the control of the British government so long as the UK remains a member of the European Union. By adopting a points-based system, and granting greater access to citizens of commonwealth countries, Britain could become even more tolerant and multicultural than it already is. It’s unnecessary at this stage to set out a perfect plan for our departure. When one’s house is on fire, the priority is to walk out of the door before deciding what to do next. European countries will continue to want to trade with us. If they don’t, the UK can open its doors to the rest of the world. Economic predictions about a Leave vote are bound to be pessimistic because economists hate uncertainty. Whatever suffering the markets experience, it will be short-lived. Irrespective, we must vote to leave for a much higher purpose, because “a British departure from the EU, if executed correctly, could save Europe from itself”.

Daily Express

Declared…many times.
Latest Headline: “Why should Britain leave the EU?
Why they want to Leave: It is not surprising that the Express has made it clear that it wishes to leave on several occasions. Britain’s identity is fundamentally more international than it is European, and leaving the 28-member bloc would allow the UK to better embrace this fact. It would become a stronger and more effective member of the other international organisations of which it is a part. Immigration is a great source of concern for most of the country, and controlling the figures that come in and out is of indispensable importance because immigration has social consequences as well as economic benefits. The institutions of the EU are not conducive to reform, meaning that their democratic deficit will continue to put broader European interests ahead of those of the British people.

Educating Europe Cooperation with the continent is crucial to Britain's intellectual life

in Referendum by
Cambridge (wikipedia)

Exactly a week from now, on June 23rd, citizens of the United Kingdom, for better or worse, will be asked to give their answer to the question of whether the United Kingdom should “remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union”.

When the war of sound bites and statistics has subsided, or non-statistics or non-data, we will be left with the consequences of one of the most serious choices this country has been asked to make since 1975 –and possibly for many decades hereafter.

Allow me to spend some of my time saying why I think the answer to that question should be an unequivocal, unambiguous YES to remaining in the European Union. And to say why I think this matters not only to the UK, but to Europe.

The United Kingdom should remain part of the European Union because we are part of Europe. Let’s not forget that it was only through an accident of geology that we became separated from “the continent”. There was a time when our islands were part of the same continental landmass… and to the best of my knowledge we sit on the same continental shelf and we cannot be towed to sit outside New York harbour.

No matter what the proponents of Brexit would wish us to think, the United Kingdom is inextricably linked to Europe. We don’t have to go as far back as the latest glaciation to understand why the European project is one to which we should always aspire to be a part of. At the heart of this modern European project are some very simple but very powerful ideas:

– That this community of nations, bound by geography, can achieve more, and do better, by working collectively.

– That these countries can avoid war with each other, and improve their lot, by acting in concert and acting collegially.

– That its members will be enriched, not diminished, by allowing their citizens the mobility to seek opportunities.

Those are the fundamental principles underpinning the European ideal. I am the literal embodiment of what that European ideal will allow: the Welsh son of Polish refugees, now at the helm of a quintessentially British University.

I feel European to my very core. And my Britishness is as much a part of this feeling of belonging to Europe as is my Polish genetic background. The generosity of spirit of the European project has shaped me both individually and professionally. As the Vice-Chancellor of a leading research university in the United Kingdom – now I’m going to be a little more biased, the leading research university – I have had to grapple with the question of what is at stake for the UK’s higher education when we vote on whether to remain or to leave.

Our sector has done quite well out of our European engagement, especially when it comes to research-intensive universities like Cambridge. Between 2007-2013 the UK was a net receiver of EU funding for research. Under the 7th Framework Programme the UK received almost 18% of the total funding awarded to all EU countries.

To date, we have received close to €1.3bn under H2020. EU funding accounts for approximately 16% of UK universities’ research budget. The idea that this is an optional extra is fundamentally wrong. No one could argue that our sector does not bring a good return on investment from European membership. But there is a much more fundamental argument to be made in favour of our sector’s full engagement with the EU. The question is not how much funding we get from Europe, but what that funding enables.

Consider, for instance, how we have benefited from freedom of mobility within the EU – not a topic that everyone in Britain would necessary concur with: 200,000 UK students have studied and worked abroad through the Erasmus programme. Now think of the diversity that they bring back to the UK. Over 125,000 EU students are currently studying at UK universities. In addition, 15% of academic staff at UK universities hail from other EU countries.

The conclusion, to me, is clear.

Extricating ourselves from a system that allows the mobility of staff and students, losing that ability to attract the brightest minds from our nearest-neighbouring countries and from our nearest collaborators, would impoverish the United Kingdom – in every sense. So even if you want to take a parochial view, there’s a good and overriding reason for remaining.

Beyond the research income generated through European awards, what interests me most is the impact that collaborative research can have. Because collaborative research is the only way to tackle some of the great global challenges we face, whether it is the problems of ageing societies, energy sustainability, or food security – take your pick.

To give one example of the impact of collaboration: In 2011 the EU funded a large-scale research programme called ANTIGONE (which stands for Anticipating the Global Onset of New Epidemics). It involves European 14 partners, including the University of Cambridge. It wishes to understand why some viruses and bacteria spread by animals cause epidemics in humans, while others do not. It seeks to predict, prevent and prepare for future pandemics of animal origin. What could be more urgent – not just for the UK, but for the world, when we have people likely to die from infections that years ago could be easily treated? Could we have done this alone? Given the scale and the complexity of the problem, the answer is: no.

Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz
Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz

The economic case for remaining in the European Union has been made, and it is probably fair to say that that argument has been won. The battle-lines are now being drawn on two other issues that are more difficult to quantify.

One is this nebulous issue of sovereignty. Those who wish to see the United Kingdom leaving the EU are quick to conflate national sovereignty and isolationism. This stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the realities of government in today’s world. The notion that any country can be a self-contained political and economic entity, free to set its own rules, is nothing but a flight of fancy — one I have described as an Alice in Wonderland world, based on very little absolute reality. A country can only call itself sovereign if it can deliver prosperity, health and security to its citizens – going back to the ancients, let alone today’s world.

Only by pooling some of their powers are governments able to deliver that nowadays. The other very deeply divisive issue that has been brought into the debate is immigration. Again I wonder what the casual outside observer will make of the fact that a nation like ours, which has built its current economic success on the work and the entrepreneurship of many generations of immigrants, now appears more determined to dig moats and put up fences than to build bridges.

The “Leave” campaign’s panicked response to losing the economic argument has been to deliberately conflate the issue of legitimate freedom of movement within Europe with the urgent questions arising from one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of our time.

This reveals two things to me. First, it shows an absolute ignorance about (or unwillingness to acknowledge) some of the basic facts about immigration. In Europe, the free movement of people helps address serious labour market imbalances, and boosts the working-age population. Over the past 10 years, migrants have accounted for a 70% increase in the work force in Europe. Across Europe they contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits. That’s a fact – and yet that fact is being subverted as “abuse” becomes the theme of the debate. They bring skills and contribute to the human capital development of the receiving countries. Migration contributes directly to growth and innovation and to the vitality of countries. In fact, since the year 2000, immigrants have represented 14% of the increase in Europe’s highly educated labour force. That’s data from the OECD. This figure might even include some of you in this room.

The second thing that the opportunistic use of the immigration crisis reveals is an absolute failure of the imagination, of empathy, and of vision. The imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of the displaced and the uprooted. The empathy to see that they are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, spouses and friends, who have –overwhelmingly — not arrived in search of social benefits, but in search of safety.

The vision to understand that these men, women and children will be the productive, creative and innovative citizens of a future Europe. And that therefore the most urgent question should not be how we stop them, or manage their repatriation, but how we tackle the challenges of their integration. I assure you, these challenges will be considerable.

Let’s remind ourselves that this project, which has in the European Union one of its enduring manifestations, is not simply, as some would have it, a bureaucratic abstraction. To people across the continent who have survived the lasting damage of conflicts still within living memory, the EU’s existence is evidence of the triumph of peace-making through institution-building and collaboration. As next week’s referendum reveals, my generation is deeply ambivalent about the European Union and its institutions. This ambivalence is also apparent elsewhere, as extremist groups across Europe reject the underlying openness and democratic values of the European project.

Despite any misgivings about flaws in existing institutions, the essential vision remains the same: a community of nations providing opportunities for trade, for employment, for security, for collaboration, for mutual cultural enrichment and for peaceful coexistence. It will soon be in your hands to make the institutions fit the vision.

What would George Orwell vote? The author of 1984 would likely have had mixed feelings about Europe

in Referendum by
George Orwell at a typewriter

What would George Orwell, the great diagnostician of the English condition, make of these last few days of the referendum campaign? And how would he vote next week?

On the second question, I believe he would have agonised long and hard, expressing reservations about the EU’s institutions, its lack of democracy, as well as the incomprehensible and deceitful language of many of its communications. As a socialist, he would have had serious doubts about the “capitalist club” nature of the EU.

But on the other side, he would have despised the xenophobia that is powering the Brexit campaign, shuddered at the UK’s uncooperative aloofness from its neighbours and suspected the motives and political character of its leadership: Orwell on Boris would have been fun. Though not generally an ad hominem writer, he would have been fascinated by Gove, Duncan Smith, Farage, Rees-Mogg and Fox and interested to see that the plausible spivs familiar in mid-century British society were still flourishing seventy years later. So would Graham Greene, incidentally.

The real achievement of Europe since Orwell’s death at the age of 46, early in 1950, is of course the enduring peace. For a lot of his life, Europe had been at war and the scene of historic barbarities. In 1947, he wrote a pessimistic essay, entitled “Towards European Unity”, in which he argued that the only way lasting peace would be achieved was through a socialist federation of European states. He was doubtful of it ever happening and viewed Europe’s future as very dark.

Yet, almost all of what he suggested came to pass, and prosperity and peace that nobody in 1947 would have sensibly predicted has prevailed. The things that he thought were unlikely in any union – the leadership that would bring it about, the cooperation between nations and the freedoms more or less guaranteed to 500 million people since the Fall of the Wall – we take for granted, and, it has to be said, are now blithely prepared to jeopardise. So, I believe it’s safe to say that George Orwell would have voted to remain, at the same time as being utterly straight about his misgivings. You are welcome to take issue with me below in the comments section, but I think the evidence is good.

Why go back to Orwell when he could not possibly have known what life would be like in 2016, and could never have envisaged our hypermobility and connectedness? The answer is simple, and it applies to only a very few writers of essays, book reviews and hack journalism, which were by far the greater proportion of his astonishingly large output. It’s his values, which hold as true today as they did seventy years ago. His perception and truthfulness and lack of political game playing shine in everything he wrote and are still the standard for anyone commenting on current affairs, although few reach his heights.

About Britain today I believe he would have been rather amazed, but also puzzled. Amazed at our wealth, the sheer amount of stuff we have, our luxurious lives and the travel we think nothing of; and pleasantly surprised by the changes in attitudes to gender equality, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity. He would have looked askance at our lack of inhibition – or, at any rate our lack of decorum – the disdain for our own privacy and the global epidemic of narcissism, and he would certainly have recoiled at the space where this all comes together in the TV show Big Brother, and not just because of its title.

He would be puzzled that so many other things have remained unchanged. The class system is absolutely intact: two products of his old school, Eton, face each other across the EU divide, and inherited peers are still making laws in the House of Lords. There has been little constitutional reform. The rich are still very rich and the poor very poor – in fact, wealth inequality is greater in the UK than most other developed countries, with the richest 10% of households holding 45% of all wealth, while the poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 8.7%.

We still have the Labour and Conservative parties slogging it out, albeit representing much diminished and less defined constituencies; and we still have the Big Men, people like Aaron Banks, Tim Martin and James Dyson, sounding off about their success and making business-type prescriptions for society that appeal to the poor and underprivileged, but are obviously against their best interests. We have plenty of Gradgrinds, too: individuals like Mike Ashley and Sir Philip Green who predate even Orwell’s time in their heartless greed.

In the forces that are at play, he would observe the steady draining of power from the British state and see the United Kingdom’s breakup as probably inevitable in the event of a vote to withdraw from the European Union, where Scotland voted Remain. And he would note that the country was not happy in itself: a pronounced scratchiness had developed, whose cause was probably as much psychological as material. In the last two weeks, like all of us, he would have felt a nasty static in the air, which almost certainly contributed to the horrifying murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox.

Even after 40 odd years of membership of the EEC and EU, Britain as a whole cannot bring itself to recognise the advantages and freedoms that membership has brought. Deep down, people seem to be yearning for the days of empire, for greater power and autonomy. And of course he would realise that the locus of the grumbling appendix was probably in England, among people usually inclined to a right-wing view of the world, even if they were lifelong members of the Labour party.

It may be unfair to yoke Orwell to one side of the current debate like this, but his speciality was always the English, and he’d have been fascinated – and at his most forensic – when he came to examining what was pushing Britain out of a union that had provided more benefits than anyone bothered to count, and which, together with some deregulation, was responsible for the revival of the country’s fortunes after years of decline. Among many strange aspects of this campaign is the sight of the Leave case being promoted by people who put profit and the health of economy above most other considerations but who are in fact arguing directly against those very interests. No one can possibly doubt that something little short of a calamity would follow a vote to leave.

In another article on this site, I asked when, exactly, was the sovereignty that the Leavers all yearn for possessed? I have never found a convinced Leaver who can answer that question intelligently. One friend replied that the sovereignty he hoped for was pre-1914, which is an astonishing admission, but most talked vaguely of gaining a new kind of autonomy and power for Britain. It is odd that they do not see – perhaps cannot see – that “in taking their country back” they will almost certainly cause the break up of the very entity whose influence and power they wish to boost. Make sense of it, if you can. There is simply no logic to it and this is what makes Leavers so clinically compelling.

Orwell might possibly have supported the drive for Scottish independence but he certainly would not have understood the Brits south of the border who haven’t thought this through. Yet this vote is not about reason. The one certainty in a plebiscite is that it reveals the molten lava beneath the surface of a culture. And there is a good deal of fakery about. The visceral case for leaving the EU attempts to appear rational, while the reasonable but unexciting case for staying strives for passion. Neither side is very convincing.

One thing that is striking about Britain now and would certainly have been the subject of Orwell’s unwavering gaze is the self-regard of the English. Scotland has its own particular brand of nationalist superiority, but in England the qualities of modesty and self-mocking humour that protected us from conceitedness are less obvious than they were. We are far more likely these days to see ourselves as the home, if not the global birthplace, of democracy, fairness, liberty, invention, justice, charity, humanity, enterprise, irony, sportsmanship and humour than we once were. We resent outside influence and feel no one can tell us anything about the areas of our supposed excellence, least of all democracy and enterprise.

Nigel Farage in front of the infamous poster unveiled this week
Nigel Farage in front of the infamous poster unveiled this week

There is not a lot of distance between this sense of superiority and the bubbling xenophobia that is a feature of the campaign. Oddly, despite some improvement in relations between races and communities at home, the modern Englishman feels no qualms about speaking contemptuously of Europeans, or refugees from war zones, for that matter. Here is a man talking last week on the BBC’s Your and Yours radio show about his visits to southern Italy: “You just have to be in southern Europe to understand that their way of life, and their way of working – or not working – to see why they have got such a financial deficit.” Britain has a vast deficit – and, incidentally, will have an even larger one if we leave the EU – but the point is that essentially this caller’s attitudes haven’t changed since the British squaddie of Orwell’s era referred to dagos, spics and Ities.

A cartoon, issued by the Leave campaign, tells you all you need to know about the saloon bar racism behind the Brexiteers. There’s none of the good-natured humour that Orwell wrote about in his brilliant essay on the English seaside postcard; the style is bludgeoning, the stereotypes are straight from Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer: it is a kind of racist bark from the past.

All of this feeds into the horror and fear of being “swamped” by EU migrants who are said to take our jobs, fill our schools, block up doctors’ surgeries, occupy hospital beds and rip off our benefits. There are pressures – that cannot be denied – but again there are huge elements of unreason in the call to “take back control of borders.” The English have always imported labour, whether from Ireland, Bangladesh or the Caribbean, to do the jobs they won’t do. I welcome them. In the village in the Vale of Evesham where I was born, the onions, kale, parsley, lettuce, courgettes and carrots are picked and pulled by teams of seasonal migrants from Bulgaria and Romania, because the locals won’t do the backbreaking job that we did when I was student picker (red currants and blackcurrants were my game). Many of the health workers, in and outside the NHS, who have looked after my elderly parents over the last three years, are from Eastern Europe. In the eye hospital where my wife was treated for two years, there was representation from at least five EU countries. The contribution of the EU workers here is huge and yet we can barely bring ourselves to acknowledge it.

We are watching something new in modern Britain – the rise of unabashed racism. On the day that Jo Cox was killed, Nigel Farage launched an anti-immigration poster, which in fact showed Syrian refugees, not EU migrants. The caption, endorsed by Farage’s insectivorous grin, reads “Breaking point. We must break free from the EU and take back control of our borders.” It was rightly condemned as “disgusting”, but not by the Daily Mail, which deployed similar tactics on its front page, with a photograph of illegal migrants in a truck and a headline that read “We’re from Europe – Let us in.” Orwell was familiar with the pro-Nazi antics of the paper’s owner Harold Harmsworth, but he might have been surprised to see so little has changed in the paper’s rightist propaganda. The point to underline is that racism has in the last few months entered the main stream of British politics, and a mainstream tabloid in effect sanctions this development.

Simply on this basis, we can say that the debate on Britain’s membership of the EU is not between two sides of equal merit. It is not a matter of whether you prefer one flavour of ice cream to another, either choice being valid. The emergence of the overt racism and the reliance of the Leave campaign on the tactics of hate are enough to condemn it, without even considering the very persuasive arguments about European and British stability and the UK’s economy.

There is little doubt in my mind that Orwell would have greatly regretted the emergence of the sharp cultural divide that we are seeing in these final days of the campaign. It is extremely worrying, but what I most fear is that after all of this, the rump of the United Kingdom – England – will be left powerless and impoverished, and because of our persistent need to dominate rather than cooperate – a characteristic established beyond doubt in the days of Empire – we will turn in on ourselves and come to see enemies where there are none. Orwell recognised these deeply embedded traits in these islands and not without reason set his dystopian novel “1984” in Airstrip One, once known as Britain. And it is right to remind ourselves that we have now equipped ourselves with the surveillance apparatus that was only imaginable in 1949 when he was writing the book on the Scottish island of Jura.

I may be taking a liberty here, but, yes, I think Orwell would have voted “In”, if only to protect us from ourselves.

The Spectator’s Brexit Debate, Part II The night before declaring for Leave, the magazine hosted its second public clash of ideas

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This week, the Spectator announced it would be backing Brexit, repeating the headline it opted for when opposing entry to the European Economic Community in 1975, “Out – and into to the world”, is it’s headline. Last night, the magazine staged its second referendum debate. If its audience served as a national opinion poll, the Leave campaign could be confident of a landslide. Daniel Hannan and Suzanne Evans defeated Lord Charles Falconer and Sir Malcolm Rifkind by 369 votes to 160.

Suzanne Evans opened the argument for Leave with an urge for courage and resolution. In contemplating to leave the European Union we’re experiencing the same kind of angst and uncertainty as one does when thinking about quitting a job we don’t like, she said. In wanting to remain, we feel a sense of security that stems from familiarity. We’re apprehensive about the risks and uncertainties of change. But we have an underlying and undeniable feeling that something isn’t right, and needs to change. Change is often required for growth. If we’re confident in our own abilities, and are determined to reach our unique potential, we’ll be bold enough to make the move. And since we’re perfectly competent, we’ll do more than just fine. We’ll be much happier than before.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind made the case that the EU is changing more than we think – it is no longer a ‘one size fits all’ institution. By now there are different kinds of EU membership, there are varied groupings with diverse interests. Think of the single currency and the Schengen area, not all countries belong to them. David Cameron’s opt out of ‘ever closer union’ is a real thing and a true achievement. True sovereignty, moreover, still resides in the British parliament. This is the only body that can declare our wars, determine our taxes, and control our National Health Service, schools and universities.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, formerly John Major's Foreign Secretary
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, formerly John Major’s Foreign Secretary

Daniel Hannan ridiculed Ed Balls’ recent suggestion that the UK should remain in the EU and then reform it. “Reform! If only we had thought of that!” For forty years the EU has proven itself over and again to be immune to reform. The Prime Minister’s failed negotiations are the proof that it does not desire fundamental change. Moreover, Brussels would interpret a British vote to remain as full-blown consent to continue along its current trajectory. We must think of leaving as a process, not an event. Almost nothing would change until the precise deal by which the UK ceases to be a member of the EU is clinched. We should be encouraging ‘Project Cheer’, an optimistic vision of an internationalist Britain, cooperating on the basis of language and law, culture and kinship. Most importantly, a Britain with the power to hire and fire its lawmakers.

Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan
Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan

Lord Falconer closed by insisting that Britain’s influence on the world stage would be markedly reduced if it left. It would reflect a poor choice of values, in a choice about whether to turn one’s back on an organisation that has been instrumental to peace in Europe since the Second World War, or to continue to benefit from the fruits of cooperation. One such example being increased security, brought about by the likes of the European Arrest Warrant. A loud chorus of hissing was issued from the crowd on this point, as Lord Falconer suggested that leaving would cause Britain to become “a haven for people who commit criminal acts”.

Brexit and the collapse of Empires From Byzantium to Vladimir Lenin, what the Leavers should learn from history

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It’s fair to say you’ve seen everything when you read the current Lord Chancellor in a

Peter Frankopan
Peter Frankopan

Conservative government look to Lenin for inspiration and for quotations. Those thinking about the vote in next week’s Referendum should consider the essential question, ‘famously explained’, wrote Michael Gove, ‘by Lenin to his Communist Party Congress in 1921.’ Urging readers of The Times to vote for Brexit, he implored, ‘it is the question we should be asking ourselves as we reflect on whether to Leave or Remain. Who is in control?’

One might be excused for thinking that given that Michael Gove was until recently Minister for Education, he would know what Lenin and his comrades were willing to do to ensure a better world for the future: Russia in the early 1920s turned into a version of the apocalypse, with mass starvation, acts of wanton violence that are difficult to read and repeat nearly a century later and economic collapse that forced even the most committed Bolsheviks to realise things had gone wrong.

Presumably as former Minister for Education, he would be familiar too with the battle cry that galvanised those who were convinced that Russia could be a better place than it had been under the Tsars. ‘Turn the imperialist war’, ran the slogan, ‘into a civil war!’ Forget about the rest of the world, in other words; turn your guns on your own side, divide the country – and thence take control.

Michael Gove’s performance on Question Time does little to suggest that the Brexit ring-leader has quite the charisma or fleet-footedness of Lenin or Trotsky. But his choice of exemplar is nevertheless telling – especially set alongside Nigel Farage’s put-down of Bob Geldof as ‘multimillionaire Mr Geldof’. Going in to the last week before the vote, class war is the name of the game. Who could have thought that it would have been thought up by white, middle-class men who are themselves part of the elite. But then they said that about Lenin too – Vladimir Ulyanov, hereditary nobleman of the Russian empire.

If Gove and his band of merry men had paid more attention in history lessons at school (did I mention already that Michael Gove had been Minister for Education?), they would have learned something about the pattern of the collapse of empires. Empires always fall when their peripheries try to break away. The themes that have dominated the debate and on which the vote will turn are those of migration, economic contraction, and the conviction that those involved in political decision making are inept, invisible and distant.

One might expect Boris Johnson, usually so keen to show off his knowledge of the classical world, to recognise the tell-tale signs that led to the last occasion of Britain’s exit from the mainstream of European politics in the 5th century, when the unfurling of the western Roman empire plunged most of continental Europe into what used to be called The Dark Ages. Before the last Brexit, elites lived in magnificent villas and gathered for smart dinner parties. After it, few could – or did – build using stone. Deprived of the oxygen of being part of large inter-continental trading systems, life became about the simple act of survival. Take back control? More like opt back into living in the swamps.

It was the same story with the Byzantium that dominated the Eastern Mediterranean for a millennium, chronically weakened by peripheral zones breaking off to promote their own identities and return sovereignty to the local people – ending in failure all round: empire and appendage in turn were devoured by bigger, unified rivals, picked off in bite sizes. Same too for the Mongols; or the Aztecs; or the Ottomans; or the Austro-Hungarians; all empires go the same way.

Even Britain. A century ago, a quarter of the world was coloured pink, and much more besides rosy with friendliness towards a power that was the least of all evils, and in some ways, even positively progressive. Retreat cost millions of lives in India and Pakistan; it went only marginally better in Africa, while six decades on, Cyprus is still divided, living in hope and trying to find a way beyond the traumatic past. And Canada and Australia? Well, both ‘benefitted’ (if that word can even be used) because we managed to kill or displace the indigenous populations.

Europe is not perfect. Nor is the European Union. Federations, empires, groups of diverse peoples with common interests always struggle and groan under the pressure of storm clouds. Those clouds are particularly intense right now, the result of a perfect storm of dislocation and terror in the Near East and of a chronic financial crisis that has seen the EU fine RBS and other banks billions for acting as ‘illegal cartels’ but our own authorities not send a single director to prison.

Europe has had its time in the sun. Four centuries ago, the twin discoveries of a sea route across the Atlantic and round the southern tip of Africa to India put Europe at the centre of the world for the first time. Before then, this continent was a regional backwater, at the wrong end of the Eurasian landmass. The world is changing around us as the east rises again. Being on our own not only weakens us; it weakens those around us.

But what Michael Gove and Vladimir Lenin failed to understand is that there is a price to pay for the bloody-minded pursuit of a dream. Or then, maybe they did. How middle England can fall for it is beyond me. History does not repeat itself, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, but it often rhymes.

Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is published by Bloomsbury (UK)

Leaving really means ‘Good-Bye to All That’ Britain can't depart the single market and eat it too

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Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, couldn’t be clearer about the future of Britain in the event of a Brexit majority.

In a special edition of Der Spiegel, he said, “If the majority in Britain opts for Brexit, that would be a decision against the single market. In is in. Out is out. One has to respect the sovereignty of the British people.”

The assumption that Britain would be able to have its cake and eat it, by taking all the benefits of the single market but having none of the political engagement and responsibility, has been a key part of the Leave case, but as the referendum comes into view, it is clear that the choice that faces the British people is much more stark than Leave has admitted.

Out is out. Both in political and economic terms, Britain will enter a kind of wilderness, at the same time as facing considerable strains in the union at home.

If the majority in Scotland is for Remain, I understand from a senior figure in the SNP that it will start preparing for a second independence referendum, which, given the result of the General Election last year and the subsequent flow of support to Nicola Sturgeon’s party, will almost certainly be a victory for the independence movement. The breakup of the union that the major political parties combined to prevent two years ago in the independence poll, will have gained an unstoppable momentum.

This week, John Major and Tony Blair – two former prime ministers and key figures in bringing an end to the violent struggle in Northern – visited Northern Ireland to highlight the extraordinary dangers of reinstating the border between north and south, which of course will be an unavoidable result of withdrawal from the EU, for Ireland is part of the Shengen area. There is no single development that is more likely to reignite the violent struggle between the two communities, which have enjoyed peace since the Good Friday Agreement. It must be obvious, even to the most convinced Eurosceptic, that to cause a resurgence of nationalism in Ulster would be an act of grotesque irresponsibility and vandalism.

But then there is no reasoning with the Leave campaign. Any argument against a disastrous exit from the EU is dismissed as part of Project Fear, as though these anxieties and predictions were all a complete fantasy.

But voters have a right to be fearful of the upheaval in British society following a victory for leave. There will not simply be bumps in the road on the way to a golden future, which will be forgotten when we achieve a happy equilibrium in, say, two years time. There will be lasting impacts – divisions that will be hard to heal.

Even if Britain were to have a change of heart after voting to leave and wanted to reapply for membership, an eventuality that Schäuble contemplates in his Der Spiegel interview, it will be a much diminished and impoverished entity that seeks readmission.

Paul Mason, the Guardian commentator, said of the three members of the Remain side in ITV’s Thursday debate – Nicola Sturgeon, Angela Eagle and Amber Rudd – “if you read body language you came away with one image: Leave relaxed: remain worried.”

Well, of course that’s right, Paul. What did you expect? While the Leave campaign doesn’t suffer the slightest doubt about its campaign, Remain campaigners have a very firm grasp of the dangers and irreversible damage that will begin on June 24, if we vote out.  Yes, like many European leaders who care for Britain and the future of the EU, the Remain campaign is guilty of looking nauseous about our prospects.

The romantic optimism of the likes of Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and the Gisela Stuart – the Leave team in the ITV debate – surfs over serious objections, without giving a single agreed account of how Britain makes its way in the world post-Brexit. It is ultimately Leave’s greatest offence to claim a glorious future, without providing the tiniest hint about how this will be achieved, particularly now the single market appears to be closed to a departing United Kingdom.

Schäuble’s logic is indisputable. “It (the single market) would require the country to abide by the rules of a club from which it currently wants to withdraw.” Brexit, he said, would be a decision against the single market.

The Policy Desert Policy makers need to focus on the Middle East and North Africa’s three big crises

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As the UNHC reports this week that over 10,000 migrants have been killed crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe since 2014, it is clear that we are only at the start of the problem for Europe. While war, the spread of Islamism and the collapse of states such as Libya are rightly blamed as the key factors behind the mass movement of people from North Africa and the Mediterranean, aid agencies now accept that some of these young men are on the road because of the discreet and mostly unreported results of climate change.

Walking down a food line on the Greek island of Lesbos during the winter, I was astounded to find young men from Sub-Saharan Africa and as far in the east as Bangladesh. Among them were two agricultural workers from Iran, which struck me as odd because I hadn’t associated their country with the sort of crises that explained the presence of the others in the line.

But once you know about Iran’s climate, it isn’t so surprising. There have been only three years in the last 25 when the country did not record a decline in rainfall. The shortfall has usually been met by using groundwater, but this is drying up. Iran has used 70% of its supplies of groundwater in the last 50 years, which means it will have very little to fall back on over the next 20 years.

In the South East of the country, for example, a landscape that was once green with pistachio groves is rapidly becoming barren because the aquifers are running dry. About 15% of the pistachio groves in the area have died in the last ten years, and there is absolutely no hope of reversal in that trend.

Quite simply, the water has gone and rains will never replace it.

This may not seem especially newsworthy but the sudden collapse of a particular crop like this is precisely the sort of climate change impact that we can expect to see across the Middle East and North Africa over the next 20-30 years, robbing people of jobs and forcing them to find a living elsewhere.

A recent report by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry found that with only an increase of 1.5-2.0 degrees – the increase agreed at the Paris Climate Change summit last year- the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is likely to become disproportionately hotter, with summer temperatures increasing more than two times faster than the average pace of global warming. “In future, the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa could change in such a manner that the very existence of its inhabitants is in jeopardy,” Professor Johannes Lelieveld, director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, said last month on the launch of his report.

He went on to say that prolonged heat waves, with 200 unusually hot days per year, together with associated desert dust storms are likely to render some regions uninhabitable. So, it’s not just a question of loss of work, which is anyway scarce in the MENA countries, it will be well nigh impossible to live there, and that means people will begin to move north in large numbers.

Ayztim, an ecological think-tank in Israel, suggests that by the end of the century there will be severe water shortages and a lot more desertification and loss of arable land, and that these will first show in intense competition for water of the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers, which are currently the subject of agreements. There may well be occasions on which individual states choose to go to war to control new water supplies, or to guard their own. This is to say little about the reduced levels of aquifers all over the Middle East and the risk of saline contamination in coastal aquifers.

Obviously, we can’t predict the order or the severity of events across the region, but the pressure on water and the changes in climate are realities now, not the fictions of climate scientists seeking to fund their pet projects.

When climate change is placed alongside the population growth in the region, the scale of the problem comes into focus and you begin to see the migrations of the last two years in a different light. In less than 20 years, the population of the Middle East has grown by 108 million – 44%, a rate higher than India (34%) or China (17%). For example, Palestine recorded a rise of 106% in the same period. The story is much the same across North Africa: Egypt’s population rose from 57 million in 1990 to 81 million in 2008 – a 40% increase.

This growth easily outstrips MENA economies’ ability to create jobs. Two-thirds of the population in MENA is under 30 years old, while youth unemployment is at 30%, nearly three times the unemployment rate across all ages in the region. Paul Salem, of the Middle East Institute, wrote of the young men in the demographic bulge: “their search for jobs, identity, and empowerment will fuel the tumult of the region for many years.”

There is one other important fact that he did not mention – the decline in marriage across the region, which in the restrictive MENA societies means many young men have no hope of having normal sexual relations. Little more than a decade ago, about 60% of Middle Eastern men married by their late 20s. Today, the figure is just over 50%, and Iran it is 38%.

There is a new generation of young men who cannot afford to marry, have no work, cannot leave home and are sexually frustrated. The traditional passage to adult life, its responsibilities and joys, is barred to them. Little wonder, therefore, that I found two extremely polite Iranian lads in the food queue on Lesbos, hoping somehow to enter the EU’s Schengen area to find themselves a life that is already impossible in their home country. When the effects of climate change begin to really tell on agriculture and water resources, they are likely to be followed by far more young men, and maybe they won’t be quite so polite.

Despite the vast toll on the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Europeans still mostly believe that these are all external problems that have nothing to do with us. But in the decades to come, Europe will come to realize that what we saw in the movement of over one million people between 2014-2016, together with the death toll of 10,000, was the overture to a much bigger migration. Policy makers, politicians and societies now need to recognise that this is our problem, and we ignore it at our peril.

The Great Mistakes David Cameron's real errors long predate the campaign

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David Cameron has given up the war of attrition and opted for a blitz. He’s decided that a big margin of victory is his best chance of surviving the referendum, and he knows that the best means of achieving this is by scaring people.

It’s likely he’ll succeed, but when it comes to his underlying ambition to settle the European question for the Conservatives, he will have failed, because for many in his party, winning the vote isn’t the same as winning the argument.

This week must surely have marked the apotheosis of ‘Project Fear’. On Monday, David Cameron invoked the image of nothing other than a bomb. Brexit would “put a bomb under the economy,” said the Prime Minister, “and the worst thing is that we’d have lit the fuse ourselves.”

The fuse to which he refers is the promise he made three years ago to hold an In-Out referendum if his party won the general election. It was a promise to let the British people ‘have their say’, with the simultaneous intention of appeasing and then muzzling the wing of his party that had been demanding it. Why has this promise turned into a fuse? And is the Prime Minister sure it isn’t rather leading towards his own Cabinet?

For David Davis – the Conservative MP who challenged David Cameron for his party’s leadership in 2005, and is now campaigning to leave the EU – it’s indicative of a long-term plan that’s gone badly wrong. In his view, the referendum has been poorly handled “in both strategic and tactical terms”, and he told me that when it comes to the Conservative divide over Europe, “it has worsened the problem, there’s no doubt about it.”

Mr. Davis is adamant that Remain’s scare campaign ultimately stems from a lack of alternative arguments combined with a secret terror that Brexit would be an outstanding success. The weaker the claim, the greater one is prone to exaggerate it, says Davis.

But what’s making the split in the Prime Minister’s party all the more acrimonious is that this is precisely what Cameron promised not to do when he made his ‘Bloomberg Speech’ in January 2013, outlining his ambitions for comprehensive EU reform and announcing his promise to hold the vote. In other words, the speech by which he lit the fuse.

He stated then that “proponents on both sides of the argument will need to avoid exaggerating their claims” before proclaiming that “of course Britain could make our own way in the world, outside the EU, if we chose to do so, so could any other member state.” That much of his campaign has dedicated itself to denying the latter statement by means of violating the former pledge doesn’t sit well amongst Leavers.

What caused the change of tone? For Mr. Davis, of course there’s an element of political panic at work, but so is there an acute struggle for self-preservation. After all, there are some Brexiteers who are campaigning for their own ends. So the Prime Minister certainly gave hostage to fortune by so prematurely announcing that he wouldn’t be standing for a third term. In trying to settle the European question, Mr. Cameron is trying to enshrine his legacy. In trying to settle it so quickly, he’s made a big mistake, says Mr. Davies.

According to him, the Prime Minister had two other options. He could have had two referendums, first to agree on the mandate with which to negotiate in the first place, thus putting “phenomenal pressure” on the commissioners of the other countries, and then another to decide on the outcome.

He might otherwise have decided on a vote but taken a more aloof approach to it, somewhat in the manner of Harold Wilson. He might said ‘this is a fundamental issue for the country, I won’t fiddle around with negotiations, you know how this has worked for the past forty years, you know I’m undertaken to continue to seek reform so long as I’m Prime Minister’, and then stood above the matter, and let the public decide. In such circumstances, Davis believes, the Prime Minister wouldn’t feel as threatened as he is alleged to be.

Instead, Cameron did something in between. He went into negotiations with no real levers, and consequently got a poor outcome that has virtually been forgotten since. This fired up the right wing he’s been trying to quell ever since becoming his party’s leader and disillusioned those whose loyalty depended on the promise of genuine reform, such as Boris Johnson. He must be kicking himself, said Davis.

Consequently, the Prime Minister’s been unable to make the positive case for the European Union that he should be making, and has little else but the economy on which to focus. Against the claims that the Union is anti-democratic, that it is fundamentally immune to reform, and that a voluntary economic agreement has morphed into an inescapable political project since Britain joined the EEC in 1973, he’s had little to say.

As such, the long-term questions about the EU are being obfuscated, and his party’s Leave campaigners who want them debated are getting infuriated. It would only take 50 Conservative MPs to trigger a vote of no confidence, and the more the Prime Minister betrays his promise to argue fairly and address matters of principle, the more likely he is to reach this golden number.

David Cameron has spent ten years trying to unify the Conservatives on the European question, ever since he argued for more powers to be returned to Westminster from Brussels when contesting the leadership with Mr. Davis. He’s now got just two weeks left, and the more frantically he tries to win the vote, the more likely he looks like losing his party.

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