“WE must take back control – control of our borders, control of our finances and control of our laws.” The relentless mantra from the Leave side in Thursday’s television debate almost had me throwing my remote at the TV screen. But the phrase goes down well in focus groups, it seems, so we’ll be hearing a lot more of it in the last hectic 10 days as opinion polls start to shift.
“Control” reframes the debate as one of sovereignty rather than economics, about national self-determination rather than material advantage. Leavers lost the economic argument long ago in a blizzard of financial statistics, hence the refreshed message. And it’s beginning to look as if the pro-Europeans have made the same error as Better Together in 2014 by expending their ammunition too early and relying on negative numbers.
Project Fear may have worked in Scotland in the end, but it was close. After months of hearing about how they would be worse off out of the Union, bereft of the pound and Barnett subsidies, Scottish voters eventually stopped listening. By August 2014, even a majority of No voters were saying they didn’t endorse the Tory Chancellor George Osborne’s claims. It took a desperate, last-minute dash north by UK party leaders led by David Cameron and a “vow” to give Scotland significantly greater political autonomy to save the Union.
History may be repeating itself. The polls are desperately close and there are signs of panic in the Remain side with figures like Ed Miliband warning that all could be lost if Labour doesn’t get its pro-European message across. Gordon Brown is being trundled out yet again. Who knows: in coming days might we see Angela Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk beating a path to London with a promise that Britain will be allowed to control its borders if only we vote to stay.
At any rate, the game is now on – there’s no doubt about that. After a slow start, the nation has finally engaged, as evidenced by the rush to register. Thursday’s high-octane debate was the first really significant event in the campaign. Partly, this was because of the theatrics: Boris Johnson being browbeaten by Remain women like fellow Tory Amber Rudd, who said he may be “the life and soul of the party … but he isn’t the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening”. The former London Mayor was given a very hard time. But the Leave side were probably better at getting their core message across.
At any rate, Remain is right to be worried. In a two-hour debate we heard hardly any of the finely crafted statistics of economic doom that had figured so prominently the early campaign: that every family would be £4,600 worse off, that unemployment would rise by 820,000, house prices would fall by 18 per cent, and so on. Remain realise that people don’t trust these figures any more.
The only figure that really registered on Thursday was the “£350m a week” emblazoned on Boris’s Brexit bus. Everyone accepts that this is an overstatement – a “whopper” as Sturgeon put it – of Britain’s true net contribution to the EU budget, because more than half of it comes back to the UK government in various forms. But even here, Leave is managing to turn the issue round to accountability by claiming that, while Britain may not actually lose £350m a week, it still “loses control” of that sum.
This move onto the terrain of sovereignty has posed problems for SNP retainers, who of course want to take control of Scotland, but don’t believe that there is a significant loss of control to the EU. Also, as the columnist David Torrance tweeted, for a Nationalist, “Nicola Sturgeon makes a very compelling Unionist”. Sturgeon’s defence against the charge that she is supporting one union after rejecting another is that the European Union is a body of independent countries, whereas Scotland is not independent in the UK.
The First Minister won plaudits for her confident performance last week. But she had to explain her own assessment – gleefully quoted by Johnson – that the Remain campaign has been “negative, miserable and fear-based”. She was right. But she roused the audience by claiming that Tories like Boris Johnson could not be trusted on gender issues and paid holidays.
Workers’ rights have lately become the mainstay of the Remain left’s pitch, as if in some way Christine Lagarde and Wolfgang Schauble are Islington left-wingers sticking up for the downtrodden. The problem here is that Britain legislated for equal pay and conditions for women, and for paid holidays, before we entered the EEC in 1973. Holiday pay is actually more generous in the UK than the EU minimum. Provisions such as the maximum working week have been imposed by the EU – though with so many loopholes it is honoured more in the breach.
Labour, the Greens and the SNP should avoid appearing to be living in the 1990s, when the EC president, Jacques Delors, coined the phrase “social Europe”. The EU doesn’t seem very social after its treatment of Greece. It is hard to claim that workers’ rights are safer in a Europe which is now dominated by parties of the right in the Commission, the Council and the Parliament. We may not like the Tories being in government in Britain, but we can at least throw them out at election time.
The Leave campaign’s talk of the need for control is of course shorthand for the need to control immigration. Who decides, Brussels or Britain? Immigration, not welfare, continues to be the dominant issue in the campaign, at least in England. The broadening smile on Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s face is testimony that the passion that was always on the fringes of respectable political debate is now centre-stage. Many people, including many second-generation immigrants, are being terrified by forecasts of the equivalent of the population of Newcastle arriving every year as migrants, and terrorists from Turkey being waved through at Dover.
The Leavers insist they aren’t anti-immigrant and merely want to exert democratic “control” over immigration. But this is disingenuous, not least because migrants would still come here even after Brexit. People have been coming to Britain to work because the economy here needs them, and that isn’t going to end just because Britain is out of the EU. The Australian points system, which Leave wants the UK to adopt, has led to more immigration down under, not less.
If Project Fear is the folly off the Remainians, controlling immigration is the big lie of the Leavers: the notion that Britain can keep the world at bay through erecting a metaphorical wall against incomers. The UK could become a very much uglier place post-Brexit once voters discover that the migrants are still coming. But the consensus of the polling organisations seems to be that if anyone is making progress, it is Leave.
Yesterday an ORB opinion poll in the Independent suggested that Leave had opened up a significant lead of ten points over Remain. Scots will remember how a similar poll 10 days before the Scottish independence referendum provoked panic in the British establishment. The clock is ticking and Remain need to find some counter to Leave’s racial version of Project Fear. It would be nothing short of a tragedy if Britain were to leave the European Union because of fear of foreigners.
from Sunday Herald 12/6/16