First published on OpenDemocracy
We are now less than three away from the referendum and it is hard to imagine that this campaign could become any more vile. The ITV debate between David Cameron and Nigel Farage demonstrated the dearth of the choice as it proved hard for many to support either option listening to who was defending them. Yet beyond media soundbites, it would be fascinating to know what Cameron is thinking at the moment, as he witnesses the beast he wilfully allowed out to wreak havoc in his own camp and even put the economic rationale his party traditionally stands for at risk. As reported by a recent IPSOS MORI survey for the Observer, ‘the biggest survey of its kind ever conducted,’ ‘Nine out of 10 of the country’s top economists working across academia, the City, industry, small businesses and the public sector believe the British economy will be harmed by Brexit’. This confirms other claims by prominent experts and stakeholders that if one believes that neo-liberalism and the capitalist system are the basis of a strong national economy, then leaving the European Union would be a terrible, even stupid, idea. This therefore begs the question as to why the Prime Minister, who has declared that he ‘yields to no-one’ in his ‘enthusiasm for capitalism’, would promise a referendum on the question in the first place.
The idea behind the referendum has never been to offer the British people a discussion and ultimate choice between a neo-liberal Europe and a social Britain, something the Conservative party has obviously been working hard to dismantle. The choice is between a neo-liberal UK within a neo-liberal EU and a neo-liberal UK without a neo-liberal EU. Systemic change is out of the question and was never meant to be part of the discussion. As the General Election campaign made clear, the referendum promise was dictated by the Conservatives’ lack of faith in their own beliefs and driven by their fear of a radical right upsurge. In a poorly thought-through manoeuvre, Cameron moved rightward in an attempt to occupy a gap partly filled by UKIP. The Prime Minister shifted his campaign towards the more cultural realm of identity politics, pledging to a fantasised version of the good people of Britain that he would allow xenophobic discourse to be freed as he promised a referendum on the EU (even though UKIP only represented at best just under 1 out of 10 voters).
It is possible that Cameron hoped at the time that, if everything went to plan, the referendum – and a Bremain outcome – would allow him to kill two birds with one stone. The left would be made irrelevant in the debate: it would not be the EU and its neoliberal basis against a more social Europe that would be discussed, but a nationalist alternative that would further divide an already split Labour party. In Cameron’s ideal world, this would also put an end to the UKIP rebellion, and that of dissident Tories, as they would be quashed by the uneasy consensus created behind the Bremain campaign across the political spectrum.
Cameron was right on two out of three counts: Labour’s role in the campaign has been minimal and UKIP has been rendered almost voiceless, even before the referendum takes place. However, the price he paid to keep the hyped threat of UKIP in check was probably not worth the reward. After all, UKIP has failed to have a real electoral impact beyond the EU parliament apart from forcing a short-sighted promise on the referendum, something for which the Tories have only themselves to blame. While dissensions within the Conservative party were inevitable, it is doubtful the Prime Minister would have expected them to take such proportions.
As things stand, the referendum may well have let the genie out of the bottle and it is hard to see how the right, from the pro-EU Tories to the most rabidly Europhobic nationalists in UKIP, could remain the same in the aftermath. If the UK votes for Brexit, then it is almost inevitable that Boris Johnson will challenge the leadership and take all of us down a path of uncertainty as he tries to gather a bunch of deeply divided politicians with no clear agenda to build upon to navigate a period of deep uncertainty.
If, as is more likely, the UK votes to remain in the EU, it is hard to imagine that, on the one hand, Bremainers will welcome Brexiters back into the fold without hell to pay, and that, on the other hand, Brexiters will in fact be willing to reclaim position in a party whose leadership they have virulently attacked and threatened for months. In fact, Brexiters have even declared they would challenge Cameron’s leadership even if the British people chose to remain in the EU. Besides, despite the defeat, their insurgency could be easily portrayed as a victory, as long as more people vote for Brexit than had previously voted for UKIP. This, Brexiters would claim, would show that there is a part of the population that deserves to be heard in British politics and that it is their duty to give this silent minority a voice against the politically correct elite and their dictatorship, who have managed to sway the rest of the population to vote for Bremain. They will tell us that it’s all a big conspiracy anyway…
Our so-called rebels would thus be left with a unique opportunity to occupy a well-defined space on the right of the Conservatives, one that was carved by decades of mainstreaming of anti-immigration rhetoric. The difference here would be that, if a new ‘alternative’ party was founded by Johnson and his ilk to occupy this space, this ‘outsider’ party would benefit contradictorily from the legitimacy of its leaders through their once mainstream positions in the very establishment they pledge to fight. While UKIP did benefit from strong financial support and media hype, this new formation would push this to new levels.
As the referendum campaign suggests, Brexiters would have no issue tapping into ethno-exclusivist and neo-racist politics in a manner reminiscent to that of successful populist right parties across the continent. In fact, the Brexit campaign’s strong focus on immigration and identity often lacks the nuance the most reconstructed radical parties on the continent have come to master. Johnson’s comments about Barack Obama’s ‘ancestral dislike of the British empire’ led some Brexiters themselves to describe them as ‘totally racist’. A recent Vote Leave poster on Turkey joining the EU (see below) would not have been out of place in a campaign led by the Swiss People’s party or the Front National, and is reminiscent of the scaremongering conducted by Nigel Farage when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU. Tellingly, the Brexit campaign must deal with the same challenges the radical right faces when it comes to controlling some of its most zealous activists. For example, the official campaign was quick to denounce the home-made posters on the M40 calling British voters to ‘Halt Ze German Advance’. The line is indeed blurry on the Brexit campaign as to what is acceptable and what it not.
This foray into neo-racist politics, would lead our new leaders to ignore wilfully any criticism of our current economic system, and British people would be told instead that those responsible for poor work conditions and insecurity are immigrants and the dictatorship of the politically correct elite who have imposed various taboos on a mythical ‘Us’. They would claim that it would be high time for wealthy elite career politicians backed by huge media conglomerates and powerful financial interests to protect hard-working Britons against the all-powerful migrants backed by the sordid intelligentsia. This would certainly appeal to part of the eight out of 10 UK citizens who do not trust political parties, and the electoral potential of such a party would be propped up by the many more who would join the ranks of abstention as the political circus is driven ever further away from politics and democracy.
This is only one scenario of course, and possibly one of the bleakest. Nonetheless, what is clear is that while a serious discussion about the EU, its shortcomings and future is essential, a referendum in the current media and political contexts was not the solution and cannot be democratic or political. All it is is a masquerade where reactionary forces jostle for positions.
A serious debate about the shortcomings of the EU and possible alternatives within or without would necessitate a debate about alternatives, something we have not and will not be given within the official campaign and mainstream media. In a country where the media, including the more progressive outlets, is enamoured with UKIP and gives constant coverage to toxic arguments about immigration and national identity, and where the Labour leadership despite its very limited radicalism is vilified across the board, hope for a real political discussion is minimal.
A recent article by Nick Cohen in the Guardian exemplified exactly this. Cohen pointed at the irrationality of the paranoid and conspiratorial Brexit campaign and the very real dangers such people would represent at the helm of the country in case of a Brexit. However, while the article mentioned that ‘there are dozens of good reasons for leaving the EU’, the debate stopped short of discussing these. The Brexit campaign has been far too scary for any of us to actually debate the EU, whether it can be reformed and, if so, what is to be done.
What we are thus witnessing in this campaign is not a debate about two different worlds, it is a debate about two visions of the same thing, one bad and the other worse. This is not politics. This is not democracy. This is not what we deserve. This referendum will take us no closer to a better Europe. However, it will have unleashed yet another wave of identitarian politics that will come crashing against the already greatly weakened defences built by those who strive for a just and equal society.
If liberal democracy is worth defending, it is high time we demand the bare minimum from our so-called representatives. As Jacques Rancière highlighted in his 2005 The Hatred of Democracy, there are many moderate measure which could be easily implemented to make liberal democracies more democratic: limiting the number of mandates to prevent the rise of a professional political class, limiting campaign spending more drastically, monitoring possible interference by economic powers in the electoral process etc. Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but then what does it tell us about the state of our societies which have become increasingly oligarchic? Assessing critically the state of our societies is essential and this where a real political discussion would begin. This would take us away from nasty debates between visions of the same thing, and instead towards discussions about real alternatives where justice replaces fear, and a belief in universal equality prevailed on the darkest justifications for exclusion. This would not be an easy path to choose, but can it be any worse than what is currently on offer?