The politics of fear can work both ways. The Leave side responded to elite politics of (economic) fear with its own politics of (cultural) fear. Seventy million Turks are poised to arrive if we vote Remain, to be followed by hordes of Albanians and millions of Montenegrins. The Brexiters have succeeded in making the referendum about immigration and population growth rather than the EU. People might not have a clue how the EU works or where Montenegro is, but they think they know all about immigration.
When questioned, Brexit voters seem driven by a diffuse wail of despair as much as by any rational anti-Eurocentrism. Here’s the chance to stick it to them, as ‘they”ve ignored working class communities for a generation. High levels of immigration, stagnant wages, youth unemployment, overloaded health and welfare services, congested roads? You name it; it’s all the fault of those blasted EU bureaucrats, however obscure and indirect the causal links might be. Europhobia makes a convenient lightning rod for undirected anger. Voting out offers a glimmer of hope. It seems to herald a return to those cosy, familiar days of childhood, of security, of coats for goalposts, home-cooking, mawther’s pasties and a sense the world wasn’t running out of control.
Brexiters inform us that we’ve rather carelessly lost our country somewhere. In one of those offshore tax havens, perhaps. ‘We want our country back’ can be read in many ways but, as uncertainty rules, for many Brexit holds out the promise of the return of some long-lost land of nostalgia. It’s simple, misleading and ambiguous (who are the ‘we’?) but, because of that, an effective slogan.
A vote to leave is the last chance to vote against the chaos of the present. Of course, the deep irony is that never-ending chaotic change and ‘creative destruction’ is the name of the game for the finance capitalism that has us battened down. Tidal waves of cash cascade across the globe furiously seeking out new sources of profit, making and unmaking communities as it washes over them. There’s little evidence that Johnson, Gove and Farage aren’t also fully signed up to continuing that frantic search that turns everything solid into air.
Another irony is how three ex-public schoolboys – Johnson (Eton), Gove (scholarship to Robert Gordon’s Academy, Aberdeen) and Farage (Dulwich College) – have successfully positioned themselves as outsiders leading the sod-em-all brigade in scaling the bastions of privilege.