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The British EU Referendum -- A Primer For An American Audience And A Case For 'Remain'

By Petr Knava | Politics | June 23, 2016 | Comments ()

By Petr Knava | Politics | June 23, 2016 |


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Strange bedfellows this side of the Atlantic. You may have heard rumblings from across the pond. Strange, aggressive squawks of various tones and flavours. It may have been a little bit disturbing. We know; we’re used to hearing similar sounds coming from your end.

So to my American friends I say: rest easy, today you are not the only ones going through national drama. Your one-time pint-sized overlord and now vassal state — and my adopted home — the United Kingdom, has instigated some of its own. Namely: a potential messy divorce from its continental neighbour: Europe.

The EU referendum. I’m sure that, despite the distance and the din of your own madness, news of it has reached you on your sunny shores, or in your desert compounds or your mountainous bunkers, or on the roof of your fancy New York penthouses or rundown Appalachian shacks. The European Union — a now half-billion strong bloc of 28 member states, arising out of the ashes of the War that tore the continent asunder — is a strange and bewildering beast. We have trade deals; we have passport-free movement of people; we have cheaper mobile phone tariffs! To even begin to try and master the intricacies of its inner workings is to take the first step down the road of madness; to even think about beginning to fight through the cloak of bureaucracy that it clads itself in is to invite a foul beast into your home and a curse upon your house.

So, no, this is not an attempt to bring you up to speed on the workings of the hinges and the pistons that drive this ridiculous continent. Truth be told, what it actually is is simply your humble author, sat in a London pub, alone with a beer and a laptop, finding himself in a peculiar position and squirming uncomfortably because of it: on the same side of a debate as David Cameron. It is not too common an occurrence that notorious neoliberal crypto-fascist pig-fuckers find themselves aligned with bleeding heart dyed-in-the-wool socialists. But that is where we find ourselves at this point in history, and there’s no denying it. Strange bedfellows this side of the Atlantic.

The motives of the bedfellows are of course, the real rub. But we will get to that in good time.

And, just because this is a discussion about the bloody EU, which can be — let’s say — soul-crushing at times even for those directly invested in it, we will occasionally take a break with some puppies.

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Before all that, though, you should know how we got to this. In 2015, Britain held a general election, which the Conservative party won with a staggering 36.9% of the vote. In the lead-up to this election, their leader and pig-fucker-in-chief, David Cameron, took a break from listening with delight to the squeals coming from his basement to promise that should his party win, a referendum would be held on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union. Why did he do this? Blame can be partially laid at the feet of this melted doorknob of a man:

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Nigel Farage, multi-millionaire ex-commodities trader, faux man of the people, ex-Conservative party activist, and leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP, for those of you thus far untainted by knowledge of its existence, is a right-wing, single issue populist political party whose sole existence is predicated on shouting loudly and pointing accusingly at people — usually brown ones — who were not born in the UK. They, of course, deny any racism. And, like all things in life, we should take people at their word. Like these words, from the mouths or keyboards of UKIP’s party members:

Andre Lampitt, the star of the party’s European Election TV campaign, tweeting:

‘Most Nigerians are generally bad people… I grew up in Africa and dare anyone to prove me wrong.’

A senior UKIP politician stating that the UK should stop providing aid to ‘bongo bongo land’, charging that the money was being used by foreigners to buy Ray-Ban sunglasses and Parisian apartments.

Or a local council candidate for UKIP tweeting things like:

#ThingsAsianBoysDo groom and rape underage white girls, stab and rob innocent old white people, bomb innocent white people #EctEctEct [sic]”

Indeed, well so much for all that. Case closed — UKIP: Definitely Not A Party Of Racists.

Even their posters are benign and not-at-all-reflective-of-Nazi-propaganda:

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See, a real Nazi would have, say, photoshopped white people out of that poster first. UKIP definitely didn’t do that. That would’ve been really racist.

So, yes, no racism there. All UKIP are trying to do, as they say, is bring a modicum of control back to Britain’s borders. Which is an odd thing to say because Britain, an island nation as some of you might have noticed, has pretty strict border controls already. It doesn’t quite throw hopeful entrants into inhumane gulags like Australia, but it doesn’t exactly act honourably either. It also isn’t a part of mainland Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone of travel either, so — really — its borders are the opposite of ‘unsecured’. Never mind that migrants, whether from inside the EU or out — as is well understood — bring in clear and decisive net positive contributions to the economy; they staff our health and service sectors and take jobs that native workers do not, apparently, want; they enrich the country culturally; as well as generally keeping everything humming along.

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But.

And here is the big but.

The economy is, all distractions and distortions aside, fucked. This is a global thing, and it is known. A mass, decades-long worldwide transferal of wealth from the poorest to the richest, currently imposed via a cruel, economically illiterate ‘austerity’ programme, has meant that wages have stagnated, job quality and permanence have plummeted, social welfare and cohesion have been dismantled or have disintegrated, and inequality has skyrocketed. And working people have noticed, and they have gotten angry. Those huge swathes of people left behind and discarded by the system have every right to be angry. The only thing then is how that anger is directed.

It is at this point in the story that along comes a spider.

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Gaze upon the face of oblivion

Rupert Murdoch, trans-national robber baron and opinion-maker whose Sun newspaper is the widest circulation paper in Britain, and who once said, when asked why he was opposed to the EU, ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice,’ has made it his personal crusade to lay the blame for these economic woes at a particular set of feet. The Sun’s virulent and unyielding campaigning for a withdrawal from the EU, based on an exploitation of the working class’ suffering at the hands of unfettered capital and its redirection of the ensuing anger towards immigration, has been echoed by other mass circulation tabloids. Other lies and distortions about the EU have been spread over the years but the press — owned as it is by a few wealthy white men (who, naturally rile millions up to complain about immigrants cheating their welfare system while avoiding millions of pounds in taxes themselves) — coupled with the attendant and symbiotic rise of UKIP, had, over the last decade or so, swung the nationwide political dialogue to the right. Of course, in both our fine countries the consolidation of power and the domination of the media by the free-market ideologues of the right has meant a gradual shift in that direction anyway; but this was a localised and quite rapid one; one that terrified David Cameron into promising that if his party won the election, a referendum would be held.

And so, in order for the Conservatives to not appear ‘soft on immigration’, the British public would be called upon to decide whether or not their country should remain a part of the EU. They had last had a direct say on their membership in 1975 — back when it was known as the European Economic Community and was more of a simple trading arrangement, rather than today’s much more involved political union — and obviously since then many things had changed, so a lot of them saw this as a long-overdue right.

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Today, on June 23rd, as the British public go to the polls in the rain, projections for the outcome are neck and neck.

There are two main strands of the argument for ‘leave’. One is immigration, which we have already touched on, and which we know has been hijacked by the fascist wing of the ‘leave’ camp and which points to a particularly ugly underside of a society that is, as history has shown, so readily hoodwinked into laying the blame for their elite-manufactured troubles at the feet of those who do not look like them.

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The other drum being banged louder and harder than anything else is the populist cry of ‘the people vs. the establishment.’ And here is where the fog of irony sits so thick you can almost choke on it; because the camp of politicians and pundits urging us to vote ‘leave’ and using this as their rallying cry couldn’t be more establishment if they tried (thank you, Chandler). I won’t bore you with an onslaught of names, but Boris Johnson is one I’m sure you are familiar with. This goofing wolf in sheep’s clothing is a dangerous, free-market radical, who is — it could be argued — far more to the right than Mr Cameron and his allies. Joining Johnson in the infernal dream team of unspeakable c***s is former education secretary, Michael Gove — a man so far to the right that it beggars belief. The rest of those in the ‘leave’ camp are essentially mild variations on these two — regressive and poisonous harbingers of a Thatcher-on-crack new world order, wherein Britain’s already half-destroyed social systems would be fully and finally buried in an unmarked grave. The current state and future fate of the National Health Service (NHS) is emblematic of this. It is one of the United Kingdom’s greatest achievements, both practically and symbolically. For this reason, it has been in the process of being systematically dismantled and sold off by successive governments — this latest one doing so most aggressively. It is a symbol of a different world; one where basic necessities like healthcare are understood to stand outside of ‘the market’, in any of its forms. It is precisely for this reason that it must fall, and all other similar systems with it. The ‘leave’ camp has the honour of having on its side many politicians and captains of industry who are on record as being in favour of the NHS’s privatisation. And this is just one example — though an extremely important one — of the kind of world order they wish to build here. A victory for ‘leave’ would embolden them, and most likely grant them access to the corridors of power vacated by Cameron and co. that would allow them to do so.

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The EU is not a perfect governing body. It is needlessly bureaucratic, and at times its neoliberal roots and place in the right-wing world order are plain for all to see — its crushing of Grecian democracy the most egregious and visible recent case (as well as its continuing facilitation of trans-Atlantic neocolonial adventures). Despite this, the endless cries of ‘anti-democratic’ that have been heard from the ‘leave’ camp in the lead up to today’s vote have to be seen for what they are: disingenuous bleats. The EU is, with its elected representatives, essentially no less democratic than the British parliament, which has an unelected upper chamber, a royal head of state, and a government elected by a paltry percentage of the voting public, and which has no qualms about lying in its election manifesto and delivering a mandate-less programme of austerity. There is of course, also the question of whether or not a vote for ‘leave’ would even be allowed to happen by the powers that be.

Strange bedfellows this side of the Atlantic.

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The EU has been a paradoxical force for good and bad. Its status as the righteous enforcer of the god of the free-market and its anti-democratic tendencies are serious marks against it. Its numerous regulations, however, often go against this spirit, protecting its citizens from exploitative corporate practices with working time directives, and instituting chemical safeguards that should make the FDA blush in shame (ha!), to name just two examples. The reason we find ourselves in this rather peculiar situation where the (newly left-leaning again) Labour party, trade unions, and a broad alliance of socialists and others of that colour are on the same side of a debate as David Cameron, a multitude of business leaders, and economic thinktanks (of both sides of the political spectrum) is, in a way, a battle for the soul of the EU, as the former camp wish to stay in to save the good and to push for better; while the latter wish to fight against the good, and push for worse.

The economic arguments are almost not worth recounting, with essentially no-one with any credibility claiming that Britain would be better off by leaving the EU. It would be substantially worse off. Re-negotiating any trade deals would take years, during which the country — and primarily its poorest — would suffer. And that is assuming that the EU, having been scorned by Britain, would deal with it favourably. Its spiteful and neoliberal nature would suggest that that is an unlikely outcome. The intertwined legal systems of Britain and the EU would be a helluva thing to work with in the case of a split, too. As, lawyer David Allen Green says:

Over 40 years of law-making — tens of thousands of legal instruments — will have to be unpicked and either placed on some fresh basis or discarded with thought as to the consequences. The UK government has depended since 1972 — indeed it has over-depended — on it being easy to implement law derived from the EU. The task of repeal and replacement will take years to complete.

There is a small faction of leftists who argue for a left-split — a ‘Lexit’ — but their argument is flawed to the core, and fails to ignore the wider context of the vote. Because this has become about those on the right who are arguing for ‘leave’; it has become about their fake revolution, in which the first to suffer would be the very poor and working people that they have so cleverly managed to appeal to with their rhetoric. Rhetoric that they have otherwise made so ugly and poisonous that it has led to blood on the streets, in the shape of the tragic murder of Jo Cox — a progressive, pro-‘remain’ Labour MP — by a deranged fascist terrorist who gave his name in court as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’ This is the kind of toxic climate fostered by the ‘leave’ camp, and it is something that touches on the bigger picture around the referendum.

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Amidst the lies and untruths and screaming and data-volleys, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the bigger, symbolic picture. For millenia, Europe has been a continent riven by war. We have slaughtered our brothers and sisters for no greater reason than being told by the powers that be that it is in our national interest. When the dust settled from the collective madness that was the Second World War the continent was in ruins. In the seventy years since we have, by and large, known peace. Looking at it from a historical perspective this is an aberrant phenomenon that should not be taken for granted, as there are no guarantees that we won’t slip back into barbarism. By engendering cooperation and trade the union between Europe’s component nation states has helped in bringing this strange time about. It is, in some ways, a deeply flawed institution, and it is far from an innocent player on the global stage — exporting violence around the globe, causing suffering at an unprecedented scale — but the only way to attempt to steer it in the right direction, and to prevent those who would seek to unravel our national and international social fabric, is to stay in it.

Now if you excuse me, I need another fucking drink.

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Petr Knava lives in London and plays music


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