Britain’s EU referendum: ‘High Noon’ for Hypocrisy

At some point we will see through the facade of propaganda and hype surrounding the EU referendum. The outcome will resolve none of the major threats to security (and society) that, sooner or later, Britain has to face.

The Referendum debate will not halt the flood-tide migration of families from war-torn areas of the Middle East and North Africa. It will not avoid the looming financial crisis. It offers no answer to the problems of UK flooding or sub-Saharan drought. It will not leave us with cleaner seas, more breathable air, or more sustainable food and energy systems.

Nor will the Referendum change the fact that Britain has become an economy in which only £1 of every £10 of earned income comes from making anything. And will it not reduce the UK reliance on migrant labour in agriculture and food production; doing jobs most Brits will not get out of bed for.

Whatever the outcome, the Referendum will not put the ‘Great’ back into Britain. It won’t even leave us liking each other more. In all probability, the Referendum will merely confirm what a grumpy, irascible and divided society Britain has become.

The only merits of the debate may come from forcing the public to take a step beyond the current limits of fantasy politics. But to do so, we have to begin by demolishing a number of myths. The first of these is the myth of ‘sovereignty’.

The nonsense of ‘Out’

‘Sovereignty’ is the mantle Conservative right-wingers (and chancers) cloak themselves in. At its most elevated, it is the claim that elected democracies should not surrender powers which then force them to dance to the tune of unelected autocracies. It is a fair point, until you scratch the surface.

Most of the Tory High Priests in the ‘Brexit’ campaign are happily parts of a government that has just sent out threatening letters to local authorities, telling them they have no right to pursue policies which disengage/disinvest from fossil fuels. Stuff the implications for climate change and the drift into ecological crisis. This (local authorities are told) will put Britain in breach of non-discrimination clauses in the WTO agreements.

In Canada, oil companies are using the same premise to sue the government for blocking new oil exploration and transmission proposals. ‘Who elected such companies?’ does not appear to figure in any ‘sovereignty’ script.

Most of the ‘Out’ campaigners want to transfer even more powers to trans-national corporations (and international finance) than exist at present. Few are demanding domestic rights to set stronger employment and environmental standards.

At the moment there are some 700 international agreements that Britain is signed up to; all limiting sovereignty in some way or another. Many are essential tools for dealing with problems beyond our own borders; the pollution (and over-fishing) of our oceans, policing international climate agreements, delivering global health/anti-poverty programmes, and tackling international crime.

Less laudable are the free-trade agreements that enshrine corporate rights to exploit, without any of the civic duties to repair, restore or protect. Yet none of these threats to national sovereignty trouble the Right wing zealots behind the ‘Out’ campaign.

Nor are they troubled by the most obvious domestic ‘sovereignty’ issue an ‘Out’ vote would trigger; namely the Balkanisation of Britain.

For sure, the SNP would seize on this as the basis of a new Independence referendum of their own. The call to ‘Let English isolationism sink on its own’, would have a powerful resonance, even within non-Nationalist ranks. And if Scotland goes, don’t expect Wales to be far behind. British ‘sovereignty’ would soon sink to the level of ‘Home Rule for the Home Counties’, as Cornwall and then northern regions all put a distance between themselves and a Dad’s Army of Little Englanders.

Even UKIP might eventually baulk at the idea of the sovereignty of a land that looked more like Poundland than England.

The delusions of ‘In’

If the ‘Out’ campaigners look like charlatans, ‘In’ campaigners often appear little better.

It is painful to hear the case for remaining in the EU put in terms such as “Being a member of the EU is vital for jobs, growth and investment.” Try running this past people in Greece (Portugal or Spain) and you get a more sobering response.

The fiscal underpinnings of the euro-zone are ludicrously fragile and obsessively rooted in austerity economics. The paucity of the EU’s financial architecture means that (for almost everyone apart from Germany) the real message has been ‘sod jobs, sod growth and sod investment’. Austerity remedies are pushing millions of European citizens into the arms of enduring poverty. This is the real threat to European solidarity. Did Cameron address this? Not at all.

Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn was right to refuse to share a platform with the Prime Minister as part of the ‘In’ campaign. So should the entirety of Labour MPs.

Cameron’s ‘negotiations for Britain’ were nothing of the kind. The British ‘brake’ on the rights of non-British citizens (and on a reduced right to support family members back home) are quite different to Cameron’s approach to the treatment of footloose capital.

Europe currently loses over €750bn a year in avoided taxes from global corporations shuffling money between tax havens. This is 5 times the amount the EU has pledged in support for war-driven refugees. Yet only the refugees get defined as the problem.

At the heart of this hypocrisy sits Britain’s Prime Minister; obsessed with defending the rights of speculators, but happy to stigmatise citizens.

Cameron has resisted EU moves to rein in the the casino powers of the City of London, and steadfastly opposes an EU-wide Tobin (Robin Hood) tax. Britain even resists EU attempts to levy more than the nominal 3% tax that Google eventually volunteered to pay the UK Treasury. In-work benefits may be cut for foreign citizens, but the Tories want a bottomless pot of benefits to feed the dependencies of foreign companies.

The real danger in the Referendum debate is that it never reaches beyond the shackles of absurdity and hypocrisy. A competitive race between ‘Inners’ and ‘Outers’ – over who can sign up to most free-trade agreements – is a race between losers; the losers being the planet, the public and a civilised/sustainable future.

A place to start

If the Referendum will resolve none of the really big issues Britain faces in the years ahead it may, at least, offer a place from which to start. For me, the starting point is unequivocally ‘In’ rather than ‘Out’.

Europe needs a different political direction and Labour has to help construct it.

If Greece, Spain, Portugal and (maybe) now France are doubting TTIP, Labour should be there as well.

If the Greens that Hollande has brought into his French Cabinet want to put climate at the centre of a new economics, Labour should be there with them.

If the German architects of Energiewende want to make this a Europewide model of clean energy production, Labour should be there too,

If the Paris Summit requires institutional change to underpin new, global, carbon-budgeting and climate mitigation programmes, Labour (in Europe) must help shape them, and

If an anti-austerity Europe needs to tax speculators and polluters more than it taxes citizens, then Labour needs to be part of this too.

Jeremy Corbyn was right to describe the Cameron ‘negotiations’ as a ‘theatrical sideshow’. But this does not consign Labour to a passive, marginal, vaguely pro-European position at the sidelines of the Referendum debate. There is much that is crap about today’s EU institutional structure. It will not survive much longer. But if a new structure is to be built, if new European solidarities are to be at its centre, then Labour must be at its centre too.

The prospect of something profoundly different, profoundly better, was at the core of Corbyn’s landslide victory. Now Labour must give the belief a shape.

Alan Simpson

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