Monday, 13 June 2016

Brexit: Why I am voting Remain, Part One

Nationalism is spurring Brexit
I was moved to write this after seeing that a facebook friend of mine had ‘liked’ a piece of nationalist propaganda by Britain First. The far-right group, apparently, objected to a council asking a local resident to take down all his George Cross flags from the front of his house. 

I’m saddened when an acquaintance of mine, however slight embraces, however unwittingly, British Fascism. I’m also saddened when intelligent friends of mine enthusiastically back Brexit in the hope of gaining ‘freedom’ without really thinking about whether that’s really true at all.

Clicking ‘like’ on a Britain First post is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve lost count of the nice and mostly reasonable people I’ve heard who claim to be proud to be British and almost in the same breath condemn ‘immigrants.’ They all back Brexit, and seem to be outraged at the idea that we’re ‘ruled’ by Brussels. 

Many of those favouring Brexit that I talk to (and there’s no shortage of them in rural Lincolnshire) want to leave the European Union for three main reasons:

1. They don’t identify as European, they see themselves as British and the Europeans as Others, Foreigners.
2. They are afraid of the impact of immigration on British People.
3. They see the EU as tyrannical and threatening to British sovereignty and freedom.  In this narrative, We are undemocratically ruled over by Them.

Other people have offered much better arguments against 2 and 3 than I can. Owen Jones tackles immigration here, and Francis Pryor points out that the idea that the EU is like the Roman or Nazi Empires is just plain wrong.

There’s a vast difference between a voluntary federation working together for mutual benefit (which the British voted for, remember), and an Empire that’s held together by military force. So 3 is a spurious argument, promoted by irresponsible tabloids.

As far as immigration goes, I understand that the issues are complex in East Anglia. The presence of things like human trafficking in places like Wisbech has not helped. The driver seems to be the demand for the constant replenishment of goods in supermarkets, which requires cheap labour available at the drop of a hat.  But issues like this will not be solved by leaving the EU: far better, perhaps, to challenge our current business models, labour practises and patterns of consumer spending.

In my view, though, the biggest problem for the Remain campaign is the frankly terrifying rise of nationalism in the UK. If the UK leaves the EU, it will not be on rational grounds. It will be on a wave of nationalism.

Nationalism needs to be distinguished from patriotism. Patriotism is a healthy kinship for one’s place of birth, one’s fellow people and a sense of shared history. Nationalism is a toxic mix of fervent prejudice in favour of one’s country, seeing it as superior to all others, and xenophobia.

It is an extremely dangerous force, because a population that is whipped up by nationalistic fervour can do the most terrible things. Whilst it's true that current national sentiments seem nothing like as extreme as those in, say, Nazi Germany, the point is that any collective choice made in this state is not likely to be a wise one.

Unfortunately, and especially in troubled times like these, healthy patriotic feelings can very easily turn into nationalistic ones. The trigger for this is chronic fear and anger, which can easily be manipulated by the unscrupulous.

And there are plenty of unscrupulous people about.

It is very worrying, for example, that those in the Tory party who back Brexit seem to be doing so as part of a power struggle. The issue is far too important for this, and I think that it is being handled with incredible irresponsibility.

The tabloids also have a lot to answer for. For quite a some time now, most of them have been putting out pro-Brexit propaganda. The narratives focus on immigrants and also compare the situation to the UK’s defiance of Hitler in World War II.

Aldous Huxley wrote that this sort of propaganda “offers false, garbled or incomplete evidence, avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats [think immigrants and benefit ‘cheats’], and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals.” (Brave New World Revisited, p. 44).

In this debate, both sides have used propaganda of this sort to score points, but the Brexiters have done it more effectively.

The problem with this sort of propaganda is that it does not lead to well-reasoned conclusions, but ones based upon emotion and snap judgments. And even if you disagree with the sentiments, you can end up expending all your energy arguing about immigrants and National sovereignty, when these are not the most important issues at this time.

The important issues have much to do with the UK and Europe’s longer term survival in an era of growing environmental catastrophe, about the deepening of democracy within our different cultures, and whether we can build a civilization that is truly just and sustainable. Nationalism and xenophobia are destructive because they reflect an almost total lack of long term, constructive and expansive thinking, which are needed to tackle the important issues. So whatever your views on Europe, mindless nationalism must be fought.

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