My normal reaction to politics is heightened interest, a quickening of the pulse, a keen desire to understand what is going on. Whether it’s elections in Germany, ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in the USA, or the organisation of voting in countries with low literacy levels (pictograms come into their own here), I am quite excited. But this referendum? It is the worst combination ever, being both tedious and toxic. It feels as if we’ve all been taken hostage by Michael Gove and Chris Grayling. Not nice.
No good is likely to come of this whole process. That it was unnecessary is a given. But now that it is happening, a lot of things will follow. They will not be good.
The first thing to note is who is most excited and motivated by the prospect of a ‘leave’ vote?
Some of them, and they’ve had quite a lot of airtime and newsprint over the years, are the neoliberal fundamentalists. Their poster boy is Daniel Hannan, the MEP, but Govey and his ex-SPADs are in this crew, too, with Boris as a ‘me-too tag-a-long’. They have access to the media, and they are articulate and forceful. For once I say, let them have all the media exposure they crave. I don’t agree with their case, but it does helpfully muddy the waters.
For the Hannan approach uses numbers, references to other countries, evocations of the law, and all the stuff of political argument that is most confusing to the core ‘leave’ voters.
For this referendum will be about one thing. Immigration.
Not immigration from the EU. When Farage says that keeping out Romanian fruit pickers will enable the UK to admit Indian doctors and African architects, his voters are not listening and don’t care. For them, this is a referendum on everything and everyone they don’t like. Homosexuals, feminists, clever people, artists, above all those of suspect pigmentation.
The referendum has unleashed every unrequited hate of the last of the last sixty eight years. From Windrush to the Megabus migrants, all historic and current resentments will focus on the referendum as a means of giving voice to those howls of rage.
I can anticipate some objections to this. If those real anxieties and resentments have been suppressed, perhaps they ought now to be heard. That’s what politicians mean when they say “we need an honest debate about immigration”.
But that’s actually dishonest. Functional societies absorb, sublimate, relegate to the shadows, all sorts of dissonant ideas and feelings such that they ‘sort of go away’ and people can get on with their lives in social harmony or tolerance. It’s messy, but it works. That’s what’s happened since the 1948 Commonwealth Immigration Act. There have been moments of flare-up, with Moseley, Powell, and far-right electoral surges, but by and large there has been a broader political consensus not to go there, and the broad current of public opinion, helped by generational change, had gone along with this.
But as we see when ethnic nationalism rears its head, what once was dormant is too easily reactivated. We don’t need to look to communalism in India, sectarian viciousness in the Middle East, or African genocides. At the heart of Europe twenty years ago, in the Balkans, we saw how old antagonisms are always latent. Like smallpox, or plague, the virus that was once contained retains the potential to run freely and destructively.
Or how about the Scottish independence referendum? People in the rest of the UK had all my life seemed generally well-disposed towards Scots. Then the referendum let loose ethnic nationalism, and Cameron was able to use that to buy himself an unexpected election victory. It is hard to see how, without the SNP-Miliband bogey, there would have been any election result other than another coalition. And then, of course, we wouldn’t be having this referendum.
This referendum will scarcely be about the EU. The curved banana eccentrics, and the ‘Brussels bureaucracy’ bores are few. The hedge-funded globalisation fanatics are also few, even if they have some traction in the London media bubble. But the length and breath of this land every tongue-tied bigot will be emboldened by this referendum campaign. They may not front the campaign, but below the line comments, letters to the local press, radio phone-ins, and all the rest will be their playground.
And then what? Getting the crazies back in the box won’t be easy. If they win, they won’t get what they want (because like Trump supporters, they have no idea what they want). If they lose, their martyrdom complex will be reinforced and battle-hardened. Like the SNP-supporters, they won’t want to give up the heady rush of the fight. Ethnic nationalism is dangerous stuff.
So thank you, Mr. Cameron, for your miserable little referendum which is about nothing and will settle nothing. Meanwhile, in real life there’s a war going on, the biggest refugee crisis ever, and perhaps another financial crash on the way. But British politics doesn’t deal with petty issues like that….