Don’t leave

I’m really depressed about this referendum. I’ve been feeling sick in my stomach for weeks, and as the opinion polls show more and more support for Leave, I feel worse and worse.

Like a mid-term by-election, it doesn’t matter what you say it’s for: people will use it to express their dissatisfactions. And no one seems to know anything about the European Union.

You might say — some do — that that in itself invalidates the EU. I’m not sure how many people could name their local councillors, MP, or even more than a handful of members of the cabinet. I pay a lot more attention that most — I’ve worked in government for a couple of years — and I couldn’t name all of those.

However, at least in a normal election the extremes of viewpoint are filtered through the moderating effect of representatives. They’re not as representative as I’d like, but it’s still better than the alternative. When Parliament abolished capital punishment, it opposed the views of a strict majority of the electorate. If we were to hold a referendum today on “should paedophiles be hanged?” we might get a majority in favour, but I think we’d probably get a more nuanced take in Parliament.

The debate, such as it is, has proceeded from unsupported claims about the amount of money being paid to the EU, via various unsupportable promises about what would happen on exit, to the firm ground of immigrants, immigrants, immigrants, immigrants. And there is a thing that we cannot and do not have a reasoned public debate about.

“You can’t talk about immigration.” Whatever the opposite of a truism is — a falsism? — it’s that. The shoddier end of the press (the Express and the Mail, especially) has been banging on about the evils of immigration daily for years. Politicians chasing expediency have chased the dialogue ever further in one direction, until the Overton window on the topic is so far over that it resembles the 1930s in places. People believe that all their problems, whether it’s unemployment, social housing, house prices, or whatever, is the fault of the immigrants. Even older immigrants seem to believe it! It’s just common sense, isn’t it?

Now I could list reasons why immigration is not the enemy. I could cite the lump of labour fallacy, or government policies to sell off social housing to buy voter loyalty, or the fact that the housing supply has increased proportionally with population for decades, or the fact that immigrants pay more in tax than they take out. But none of this matters, and it’s beside the point. Bashing immigrants to sell papers or to keep a few voters from going over to a more extreme minority party is a tawdry and unworthy activity, and we have to live with the consequences regardless of what happens on 23 June.

If no one understands what they’re voting on, then the process is wide open to those who play on the prejudices of the electorate. Repeat a lie often enough and it sticks. Wind up enough fear of the Other and let go.

I’m sick and depressed because of the increasingly hateful and nationalistic discourse that I see. Even if it succeeds, it can’t provide the answers that the people seduced by it were seeking. All it can do is to increase the sum of human misery.

One of the consequences of a Leave vote will be to reinforce this awful nationalism. As has been pointed out, voting Leave doesn’t mean you’re a xenophobe or a racist, but xenophobes and racists are all voting Leave, and they’ll feel emboldened, and that won’t be pretty.

I’m also sick and depressed because, personally, I’d just about got to the point where I felt that I could settle down here. Maybe not in London — I can’t afford to buy anywhere I’d want to live, and this country’s laws make security impossible as a tenant — but perhaps somewhere in England. But now the Brexiters want to tear everything up in what seems like a petulant act of nihilism.

And for what? Sovereignty? Don’t make me laugh. Parliament can annul the treaties that bind us to the EU at any time. The Prime Minister can invoke Article 50. The very fact that we’re having this referendum demonstrates that the UK is sovereign. The reason that we’re talking about Article 50 rather than just annulling the treaties is because sovereignty is of itself not very useful without co-operation with other nations. And if we really cared about democracy, we might do better than an electoral system that returns a majority government on 36.8% of the votes. We might not have a monarch, or Royal Prerogative. We probably wouldn’t have an upper chamber made of a mix of appointees, nobles, and bishops.

If we leave, we’ll lose freedom of movement. That’s not just the right to go on holiday without a visa, as some people think. It means that you can go and live in any of these countries, and take a job on your own terms, and without the loss of control that comes with your visa being tied to your employer. It happens in both directions, too. Without the ready availability of skilled labour, places like London and Berlin would have a much harder time staffing technology companies. I mention that because it’s a field I know about, but it’s true of other industries. Whilst it might benefit me by letting me put my day rate up even higher, there are limits to what can actually provide a return, and it seems more likely that companies just won’t start.

If we leave, we’ll lose free trade with the EU. Or maybe not. The Brexiters claim that we’ll just sign free trade agreements and carry on as before. Opinions vary on how easy that will be, but when the best that you can offer is the same thing, it’s not a great bet. Free trade versus maybe free trade.

In the event of Leave, regardless of how successful Britain is at renegotiating access to everything it’s just thrown away, there will be a guaranteed period of uncertainty while we find out. And unless you’re one of those financial parasites that can turn a profit on every kind of misery, uncertainty means bad things for the economy and jobs.

The bigger problems of the world don’t stop at national borders, and we can’t shut ourselves off from them. We’ll always be exposed to the same air, and sea, and biosphere, and economy. It’s a bit easier to keep people off an island, but a bit of water does nothing for the crises that drive them here.

In a sense, I’m all right. Because of the same accident of birth that divides the world into Britons and Immigrants, I have dual nationality. I have an Irish passport, and Ireland is in the EU, and there’s little appetite to leave, even if the UK does so. As long as the EU survives, I’ll still have freedom of movement.

I don’t want to live in a racist country that just shot itself in the foot. Fair or not, that’s what it’s going to feel like on Friday if the vote is to leave the EU.