18 May 2016

Five reasons to hate the EU referendum


Of course I don’t hate the EU referendum, or not entirely. Finally, after decades of ineffectual complaining, the British are being forced to decide. If it is a Remain, let there never be another word of whinging about the EU, “bonkers Brussels bureaucrats” or regulations on bananas. Equally, if it is Leave, then all those people saying this is the end of the world will presumably neither leave the UK nor cease to help. They’ll be here making the country as successful as possible in the circumstances, surely?

The referendum is a grand historical fork in the road. This is it. Forget a second referendum, by the way. Normal voters will pelt with rotten fruit those who don’t accept the outcome either way. We all have lives to get on with once this fascinating and important decision is taken.

Having said that, I must admit that as the campaign goes on (and we have only seen the preliminary stages) it is already pretty annoying. I will of course, as a political addict, follow and cover every cough and spit of the wretched business. But here – in a constructive spirit, as a moderate Leaver – is what I hate about the EU referendum so far:

1) It is forcing some otherwise smart people to adopt silly positions and to cling to them even when you know they know they are talking nonsense. The Leave campaign chose the £350m figure in relation to the amount that goes to the EU each week. The figure is wrong. They know it. Everyone knows it, but it’s a good round number and it’s too late to back down. Meanwhile, the Remain campaign’s responses to debating points have become positively deranged. Boris Johnson makes the perfectly sensible observation that the Ukraine crisis has not been the EU’s finest hour, and shamefully within hours he is being denounced by allegedly serious people as an ally of Putin.

2) Michael Heseltine is back on the television being ridiculous and getting too much attention. I rather like elements of the Hezza persona. He had the vision that launched Docklands. He has terrific hair. But for him – an advocate of the UK joining the Euro, even now – to pop up lambasting Boris Johnson on judgment just takes the biscuit. Boris will probably not become PM, says Heseltine. Perhaps that is true. Michael Heseltine is, after all, one of the country’s leading experts on not becoming Prime Minister.

3) Too many men – particularly Tory men – shouting at each other on the TV.

4) Brexit the Movie. I tried with it, I really did. It is extremely well-produced by a smart film-maker, and some of my friends loved it. I watched it until the end, when an enormous Eurosceptic said that he would happily feed his family on grass if he had to after Brexit. I cannot see the Brexit diet catching on. It even featured several of my very favourite people as talking heads. But some of the history struck me as downright weird. The section on post-War Germany’s reinvention thanks to open markets was spot-on. Elsewhere, it seemed rooted in the British exceptionalist version of previous centuries and open markets. Of course, the UK had a terrifically profitable couple of centuries, but the trading story is interwoven with European history, and slavery too of course. This notion that we emerged fully-formed, and apart, is nonsense. Look at the Roman influence and the Dutch influence many centuries later. In trade finance, the Venetians and then Antwerp were miles ahead of the City, which itself then harnessed immigrants and their ideas, as well as indigenous influence, to become dominant in the 19th century. It was, and is, a product of a fascinating blend of influences. In industry and culture the Germans had a rather tremendous 19th century too, and the Italians were no slouches. Overall, the tone from parts of the Brexit movement expressed in that film is not what the Outers need. It is the over-confident outrage that you’ll see each year on parts of the fringe of the Tory conference (I’ve been guilty as a pundit myself on this stuff at times down the years). But when people talk like this about Leave with a vote only weeks away, it reminds me of assured Ayn Rand groupies extolling her vision that ultimately is unappealing to people whose main fear in life is being steamrollered. Life is short; must it be brutal?

5) Double standards a go-go. Boris mention Hitler. This is not usually a good idea, although Hitler is very much the man of the moment in British politics. The roof duly caves in, although it is undeniable that a major strand in European history is the attempt – by methods very different from those deployed by the EU – to tame, conquer or unify the continent. Boris should have known better, of course, than to try to engage on this stuff when his enemies are out to get him. But then the Prime Minister says that ISIS probably wants the UK to leave the EU. And that is broadly deemed absolutely fine and Prime Ministerial?

Yes, of course, all this is standard procedure in a campaign, I know that. But this is much worse than an election (as it was in Scotland in 2014) because it is all imbued with a once in a generation – once in a lifetime – intensity that drives the obsessive participants slowly round the bend. Quite a few of them on both sides had a head-start as they were half way round the bend before the referendum campaign started. Now, about that sovereignty bill that David Cameron promised in the Queen’s Speech but which seems to be missing…

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX