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The EU Referendum Is Just a Civil War Between Two Separate Factions of Britain's Business Class

There's one question framing the debate: what's best not for the people of Britain, but for their bosses?

af Sam Kriss
13 oktober 2015, 11:02am

(Photo via William Murphy)

Welcome to the next year of your worthless life. The referendum campaign for Britain's membership in the EU is now officially on, and it won't be finished until "some time before the end of 2017" or "once everyone in the country is dead" – whichever comes first.

It's a referendum that raises some genuinely important issues: what is the role and nature of the static nation state in a world increasingly defined by flows of people, capital and weaponry? Are intergovernmental organisations like the EU changing the world, or are they keeping it the same, preventing any one country from straying too far from economic orthodoxy? What's even the point of having a Britain these days, and wouldn't we all be better off without it? Don't expect any of this to actually be discussed during the campaign, though. As glossily inhuman PR droids square off against fevered ranks of Poujadists in tweeds and Union flag waistcoats – some of whom look like they're already decomposing – there's only one question framing the debate: what's best not for the people of Britain, but for their bosses?

The last few days have seen the launch of two major cross-party campaign groups. Fundamentally, the campaigns seem to be opposing each other on whether Britain should stay in the EU, but they do seem to have a shared desire to secede from the English language. The first, launched on Friday, is for strange and unknown reasons calling itself "Vote Leave Take Control", something that sounds like it's been clumsily translated from Japanese. It's run by Matthew Elliot, founder of the TaxPayers' Alliance, an ingeniously named right-wing front group whose corporate backers – and board members – often manage to avoid paying their taxes entirely.

Then, on Monday, there was the unveiling of a pro-EU group with the equally baffling moniker "Britain Stronger in Europe" (were some of the words in that sentence requisitioned by Brussels?), headed up by the uniquely charmless former M&S chairman Stuart Rose – or, to give him his full title, Lord Rose, The Right Honourable Baron Monewden.

A referendum is supposed to be the purest form of direct democracy: no parties, no representatives, just the entire population of the country coming together to make their will clear. Actually, it's nothing of the sort. The EU referendum is a civil war between two factions of the British business classes, and the rest of us have been drafted in to get mowed down on the front lines.

What's really incredible is how little they've done to hide this fact. Amid all the guff about how supporting the EU is the most patriotic thing to do – an attempt by corporate replicants to outdo Ukip's frenzied and frothing nationalism; a tactic that failed almost before it began – Britain Stronger in Europe also released a video outlining their general message:


Over the kind of emotional music usually reserved for making people all teary-eyed about sofas or mobile phones, the clip manages to squeeze into a mere two minutes testimonies from seven different businesspeople.

There's Carolyn McCall, the CEO of EasyJet, smugly stroking a big model airplane as she chats about how easy her life is. There's Frazer Thompson, CEO of Chapel Down, gormlessly slouching like a big overgrown weed in the middle of one of his vineyards. And, with dread inevitability, there's Richard Branson, who gazes heroically into the future with a noble stillness that makes him look like his own waxwork. (To be fair, there are also brief bits from the chair of Universities UK, a student who likes backpacking on the Continent and a cop.) The message is clear: the bosses of Britain are your betters; they want us to stay in the EU – and you, lowly ingrate, are to do as they say.

Meanwhile, Vote Leave Take Control boasts that its dedicated Business Board includes such luminaries as Tesco's former Chief Executive of Central European Clothing, and insists that "some of the most successful businesspeople in Britain have spoken out in favour of leaving the EU".

While they make some vague gestures to building decentred social movements and so on, they're also at pains to point out that they've "instituted a strict salary cap of £99,000, so those giving money to the campaign know that the money is going to the campaign – not to huge six-figure salaries". It's true: £99,000 is not a six-figure salary, it's just 99 percent of a six-figure salary. It's also, incidentally, nearly four times the average British wage, and plonks an extra third on top of the £74,000 we give to those nasty money-grubbing MPs. Clearly we're meant to applaud this, but it's hard to escape the feeling that the people who think it's a display of heroic selflessness haven't set foot in the real world for a very long time.

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There is, of course, the argument that if businesses are making more money, they'll be able to employ more people and help tug the rest of us whinging povvos into something like prosperity. This is a dubious argument, of course, but it's striking that neither side even bothers making it. They just tell us that all the big capitalists are on their side and expect us to nod sagely and agree that if rich people want something, then they ought to have it. It's not as if all these goodly oligarchs might be betting that they'd personally benefit from an isolated Britain, one in which European labour protections have been abolished, or a stronger EU that's essentially an extension of the European capitalist classes and regularly forces its member states to privatise their public services (the fate imposed on our own Royal Mail).

As things stand, we're stuck between a petty British nationalism that wants to lock the entire country in a 1940s-themed time-trap, and the cold hunger of a continent-spanning bureaucracy. There really is no good option. I wish I had some worthwhile advice. Don't vote.

@sam_kriss

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