The EU Referendum Is a Debate Between Two Types of Frothing Nationalist

It's hard to decide on the lesser of two evils when both sides are evil.

22 February 2016, 11:01am

A refugee in Calais (Photo by Jake Lewis)

Like roughly 15 percent of British voters, I have absolutely no idea how I'm going to vote in that EU referendum that we've all been waiting for. It's not that I'm being torn between two sets of equally persuasive arguments; instead, I've found myself cowering terrified in the dead centre, hemmed in by a circle of stalking mobs with their strange and incoherent demands. On one side, the malign alliance of Nigel Farage and George Galloway, their slimy faces visibly dripping in the torchlight. On the other, David Cameron, flanked by a stern phalanx of veiny-necked City boys, who always know what's best. And all of them are chanting, in tones bubbling with ancient menace, for my support. Is there some hole I can hide in? Isn't there something, anything, that I can do to make them all just go away?

The upcoming referendum might be a simple yes-or-no question, but the terms of the debate have been framed to make sure that it excludes the political left, and more broadly anyone whose driving motives are anything other than venality or spite. Our bout of euro-agonism has prompted a serious split within the Tories, with Michael Gove and Boris Johnson breaking ranks to campaign for a British exit. Strategically, a civil war within the party might be a good thing, but it doesn't feel great. Instead, it feels like there are suddenly twice as many of the bastards, fanning out across the spectrum of acceptable political opinion.

With the country sweating out its referendum fever, the aims and attitudes of a frothing seaside nationalist are taken as a given; every campaign is talking to me as if I'm the kind of person who wears a Union Jack waistcoat. Is the EU's mandated privatisation good enough, or should we be taking the axe to our own legs? Is it Britain's destiny to kill every living thing, or will our European allies help us do the job faster? Meanwhile the left, trying to avoid the more vicious forms of petty Poujadism from the far-right, ends up serving as a cluster of obedient footstools for the banking elite. Jeremy Corbyn released a statement on the referendum. Did you notice? Did anyone?

Most votes are usually a vote for the lesser evil, but this time it's hard to tell which one that might be. The fantasy that seems to dominate the pro-Brexit lobby (aside from the idea that Brexit will allow them to immediately lynch every asylum seeker they can get their hands on) is that without the skeletal hand of Europe on our shoulders, Britain will flourish into some kind of networked Arthurian idyll of sensible government and self-rule. Without those banana-straighteners in Brussels, Michael Gove will be able to buy a drum of olive oil as big as his house.

This is pretty stupid. There are, it's true, a few countries that are fully sovereign, with all power being held by the national government: one of them is North Korea. Everywhere else, the laws of international finance and its governing bodies are final. Any post-European Britain will either continue to be ruled by shady and unelected councils from beyond its shores, or it will starve. The independence that Ukip and their cohorts are searching for is a myth. That's why the bankers are so opposed to it; they might be evil, but they're not deluded.

Meanwhile a vote to remain in the EU will mean that Cameron's hard-won concessions from the European Council will be put into effect – basically, he's turned every "stay" vote into an endorsement of his own statesmanship. It's unsurprising, then, that he's had a hard time selling this deal, because it's terrible: somehow, he's managed to make the Brussels system even worse.

There are a lot of bad things about the European Union: its common agricultural policy is starving Africa; its vast fiscal apparatuses are forcing poorer states to cut any provision for their most vulnerable citizens; its ruling bodies are either undemocratic or uncomfortably full of fascists; the whole thing acts as a mechanism through which the European ruling classes can exploit a steadily more immiserated population. For all its faults, though, one of the bad things about the EU is not that it requires the British government to pay in-work benefits to European nationals.

But this is where Cameron pushed the hardest, and as a result we now have an "emergency brake" that could allow us to reduce the payments for a seven-year period. Our Prime Minister presented this deal as a victory for the entire country. Maybe ensuring that working foreigners are worse off than their British peers really is an urgent national priority, but it's hard to see how. In 2013, in-work benefits for EU migrants constituted all of 1.6 percent of the country's tax credit spending. What kind of emergency are we talking about here? If that number climbs to 2 percent, will there be bodies in the streets?

Europeans tend to think of the British as a nation of spoiled teenagers, endlessly throwing tantrums and insisting on special privileges, all on the basis of that short stretch of water separating us from France: witness Cameron flying to Brussels with his demands for a later bedtime and more pocket money. They don't know the half of it; they still don't understand exactly how perverse the British really are. This is the referendum: are we special, or are we super-duper special? For all the bickering and vitriol, it has the tenor of a big mutual jack-off session. Neither side is better, because in a game of soggy biscuit, there aren't any sides. It's probably too late now, but if there's to be any hope for anyone, the referendum needs a third option: first Britain leaves Europe, and then it can leave the planet altogether.


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