With the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU less than two weeks away and after a brutal campaign that feels like it’s been going on forever it’s perhaps not surprising that a degree of fatigue is setting in. Indeed the public “debate” has been continually marred by the suspicion that this has more to do with factionalism within the Tory party than any genuine popular will, and the continued spectacle of government ministers tearing strips off each other in public is about as politically engaging as an episode of Jeremy Kyle. Exasperated audience members on Question Time cry “I just need the facts to decide, but I don’t know which facts to believe”. It is vital however not to dismiss the referendum as a spectacle concocted by the Tories to settle personal scores. Nor should we take the clowning around of politicians as exhaustive of what is truly at stake in any political moment.
That approach would cover over some inconvenient facts not least that UKIP – for whom exit from the EU remains their raison d’etre, polled nearly 4 million votes in the 2015 general election. A total that however garnered them only a single MP. That is a significant pool of unrepresented discontent that has increasingly included many former Labour supporters. There has also been a significant proportion of the Left re-evaluating their position on the EU after the coup in Greece and the inept bordering on cruel handling of the refugee crisis. The failure of a broad Left-exit campaign to emerge (almost impossible after Corbyn came out for Remain) and the belated defection of leftist media types to the Remain camp does not mean that such a position is absent. The vote on the EU crystallises a number of issues across the political spectrum and perhaps most significantly draws on emotional (sometimes even irrational) responses from the public in a way rarely seen in British political life. It is those emotional responses that the polished PR men in the government and media are having a hard time dealing with and which are less responsive to cool economic arguments.
Indeed the polls have consistently shown a lead for the Leave campaign of up to ten points over the previous three months. This is particularly striking given the now daily doses of doom from Project Fear. Their main line has been that any thought of Brexit puts the UK economy into peril, whether that means years more austerity (since when did they actually have a plan to end it?), cuts to the NHS or most recently putting the pensions triple lock under threat. There has also been some scattered portent regarding Britain’s security from both sides. All this however seems to have had little effect on Brexit supporters. This is perhaps not surprising for a number of reasons. It’s less than two years since Project Fear was last fully mobilised during the Scottish independence referendum. Then it was deployed on behalf of England, now it is being used against it. People just don’t buy the tired familiar rhetoric especially at a time when public trust in the claims of politicians are at an all time low.
It also appears that the establishment has grossly overestimated the success of thirty years of neo-liberal re-education. It seems that a large proportion of the population have not been ideologically hollowed out into pure rational choice calculating machines, easily swung to this or that position depending on how it might affect inflation or the consumer price index. These people perhaps without knowing it are choosing something else to Cameron and Osborne’s vision of a perfectly managed sacred economy where nothing – least of all the meddling of constituent power should get in the way. We should not downplay the fact that many Brexit supporters hold xenophobic or thoroughly racist views and that a Leave vote is very far from an open road towards a more progressive or left leaning UK. However this should not obscure the fact that the vote on 23rd June represents a real opening. But for what?
It is worth remembering that this referendum is a genuine and rare opportunity for constituent power to affect the form of international relations. Ordinarily these relations whether they involve the UN, the IMF, NATO or the World Bank are thoroughly insulated from influence by national populations. Those Brexit voters who kid themselves about the value and plausibility of national sovereignty in the era of globalisation are nevertheless taking aim at a vital node in the international system of global governance. It should be plain from the intervention from Obama, and from the fact that every leader within international governance has come out against Brexit that there is something very real at stake in this vote.
Another way of viewing the referendum is not as a vote on the EU, or sovereignty, or the economy or even the Tory leadership, but rather as a vote on the centre ground. It’s about whether we want an acceptable managed racism rather than take on the full blooded racism we know exists in Britain. It’s about whether we accept the neo-liberal consensus where all politics is eclipsed by economics and the most vital decisions are taken far away from the scrutiny of ordinary people. Whatever side of the spectrum they come from a Brexit vote is a vote to collapse the centre ground to open up new fields of conflict. Whatever the result on the 23rd of June it won’t be enough to close the wound in British political life, or to contain the waves of increasing discontent in all its myriad forms. It is a wound that is carried equally by the populations of Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain. In the UK, as anywhere else in Europe the fight to build a new world begins with the fight against the status-quo, against business as usual. This vote is a potentially very significant engagement in that fight.