While the referendum campaign has been marked by distraction (from the real issues) and dumbed down debate, it’s also shot through with duplicity. Any old lie will do nicely, thank you.
The most obvious is the Brexit claim that we’re delivering £350m a week to the EU. Once the UK’s rebate is included, EU receipts taken into account and EU grants to private bodies (universities and companies) factored in, it turns out the apparent £18bn outflow claimed by Johnson and Farage is reduced to £7.1bn. Despite being roundly condemned by the Treasury Committee of MPs and others, Johnson and co blithely carry on repeating this flagrant fib, exaggerating the cost of EU membership by a factor of 2.5. They can get away with this as no-one believes official statistics any more, hardly surprising after their cynical misuse by central government since the Blair era.
Meanwhile, the Bremainers concentrate on a narrow economic front, assessing membership solely in relation to its effect on people’s pockets. Since the 1980s politics has been reduced to the question of financial costs/benefits. For these people, everything has its price, but little else.
For the Remain camp therefore, migration (their obvious Achilles heel) is just an issue of economic costs and benefits. Cameron, Osborne and the rest of the metropolitan bubble completely fail to realise that, having asked other people to bear the brunt of the neoliberal restructuring that has casually killed off their former jobs and hollowed out their communities, it’s hardly a big shock if the ‘left-behind’ turn to the anti-immigrant populism spewed out daily by a rabid tabloid press. The press magnify what is hypocritically spouted by Ukip and the Tory right. Hypocritical because these same people sign up to the single market and to the free labour movement that guarantees business its lower labour costs. Hypocritical (and duplicitous) also because as half of net immigration is from outside the EU, Brexit is no magic bullet.
Inevitably, there’s a lot of irrationality swirling around the moral panic over immigration. Even last year, when net immigration into the UK hit record levels, in relation to the resident population the rate of that immigration was only two thirds that of net migration into Cornwall. For most of the past 50 years net migration into Cornwall has been over twice, often well over twice, the level of immigration into England. Yet in contrast to the hysteria across the Tamar, if we complain and ask for a breathing space, the brusque response is just ‘build more houses and accommodate the migrants‘.
On the other hand, the myopic focus on immigration acts as a surrogate for a less articulated concern about population growth. England is already one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. Population growth is adding the equivalent of a city the size of Birmingham every couple of years. Is this really environmentally sustainable? As we already have an ecological footprint in the UK that far exceeds our resources, those liberals who advocate an ever-growing population might like to tell us how this can be accommodated indefinitely.
Even though unable to assess economic arguments for and against the EU, people sense that population growth cannot go on unchecked forever. The political elite think it can. The success of the Brexit campaign has been to transform the referendum from a vote on the EU into a plebiscite on immigration and endless population growth. Remainers respond that pressure on services is nothing to do with a growing population and all to do with austerity and cuts. In reality, it’s likely that both factors – an ever-growing population and austerity politics – are involved.
And what about the non-economic impact of migration? For instance, 1.5 to 2 million British expats live out their retirement in sunnier parts of Europe. If Brexit leads to them losing access to local healthcare we could face the prospect of a potential return migration of boatloads of enraged pensioners. Although, as these would presumably add to the disgruntled left-behind population, they may turn out to be ideal future Ukip voting fodder.
The fundamental duplicity is the masking of the rather miniscule difference between the official cores of either side. Both believe in the benefits of ever greater global trade despite its environmental costs. Both seem willing to sign up to trade agreements that could hand over even more power to transnational corporations. Both argue for ‘single market’ relations with the rest of Europe, which means accepting EU regulations (or ‘red tape’ in Brexitese) a ‘free’ labour market and therefore in practice continuing migration as capital seeks to reduce labour costs.
Neither are prepared to confront the neoliberal grip on politics. So we need to assess Brexiters and Bremainers in the light of three other questions of equal significance. Which option will be most likely to encourage democratic renewal? Which would be best for confronting the urgent issue of dangerous climate change? And which is most likely to benefit the struggle of the Cornish people for parity with the other nations of the UK and recognition of our equal status?