Monday 16 May 2016

Boris, Hitler and EU

It is a truism of debating that when  a team  resorts to invoking  Hitler in support of their case they have lost the argument.  Boris Johnson's comparison of the aims of the European Union to those of Adolf Hitler is a fine illustration. Not, in my view, that the "out" campaign  ever had much of a serious argument in the first place. However, that does not mean that Johnson's absurd claim will have no effect.  His clowning panache has considerable public appeal (as has that of the almost-as-flamboyant Nigel Farage.)

In fact Johnson's position as de facto leader, or at last most prominent spokesperson, for the "Leave" side does not bear much scrutiny. He left it to the eleventh hour to announce on which side he would be campaigning, allegedly struggling to to decide which option was the best  for Britain's future.  If this is true then he must find the differences finely balanced.  So why, then, is he campaigning so vigorously for "Out" if he feels that it doesn't make much difference one way or the other?  The alternative is that his decision  was really based on which option would give him the best chance of  becoming leader of the Conservative party.  Neither alternative makes him a credible advocate.

I spent an hour or so last Saturday handing out leaflets (or rather, trying to hand out leaflets) explaining the case for voting "In."  It was not an encouraging experience.  The vast majority of people in a busy small-town centre hurried past, too preoccupied  to stop and talk, or even take a leaflet.  A very few took time to turn their heads and say they were voting "Yes."  Rather more, and with rather more vigour, indicated "No way."  The very small number who stopped to talk were for "Out."  The simplistic  UKIP messages of "making our own laws" and "controlling our own borders" have resonance.  And the greatest of these is "controlling our own borders."

From this very small sample I suspect that the referendum is in grave danger of becoming a vote on immigration, and, sadly, in particular Muslim immigration. When it was pointed out that we do control our borders for incomers from outside the EU, and it is only within the EU that free movement operates (and will probably continue to operate if we want continued free trade access to the market) the possibility of Turkey's joining was quickly raised.

Unhappily, the evidence for the concentration on immigration above all other factors  is wider than my corner of post-industrial West Yorkshire. Former prime minister John Major has warned Tory Brexiteers that they risk morphing into UKIP.  The newly elected Labour mayor of London warns against the referendum becoming "a proxy  for people's fears about immigration."

As is evidenced from the experience of other countries, the trouble with referendums is that voters tend to answer a question other than the one on the ballot paper.  That, in my view, is  why referendums should have not place in a representative democracy.

 P G Wodhouse, author of the admirable Wooster novels,  said of political debate: " Party now booms to party like mastodons across a primaeval swamp."  This is truer than ever of this campaign and one of the reasons why people aren't listening.  The "Remain" campaign needs to widen its scope beyond hyperbolic predictions of economic gloom and doom, listen to people, and present the reasoned arguments for remaining part of an exciting  co-operative and civilising venture.


  1. From my rather distant studies of Politics at Manchester University (Crikey, 50 years ago), I remember that referendums were generally considered to be "an opportunity to give the government of the day a 'black eye'", rather than any sort of expression of democratic opinion.

    1. Depressing, isn't it? (Still, so has been the lack of riots and demonstrations against the government since the 60s!)

    2. so has been the lack of riots and demonstrations against the government since the 60s

      Given that the whole point of democracy is to give the population a way to change governments without having to resort to violence, some of us might think that the relative lack of civil unrest rather proves that the system is doing its job; and are rather glad that the widespread destruction of property and disruption to life which accompanies events such as the riots in London in 2011 are the exception rather than the norm, and hope for it to stay that way.

    3. I think in this case the danger is that it presents an opportunity to give "the establishment" a black eye. The "Remainers" should give much more publicity to Ed Miliband's warning to Labour voters that if they fail to turn out and vote to keep Britain in the European Union on 23 June, the country will become a laboratory for a rightwing, free market experiment.

      After having explored the left wing case for Brexit in today's G2 (17th March)Paul Mason make the point similarly: ". . .but we can't let Boris Johnson turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy land."

      Our "disconnected" class need to be careful what they wish for.

  2. Another problem is that this issue is too complex for a simple yes or no. The economic implications are too ambiguous for laymen to fathom. Hence the absurdity of the arguments on both sides.

    1. The left wing argument for Brexit is only cogent if we believe that the British political system is poised to prduce a social democratic consensus which will create a society devoted to compassion, equality, the protection of workers' rights, motherhood and apple pie for all. Even if that were likely, by isolating ourselves we betray our comrades in the other 27 nations.

      The Brixit reality is, as described above, "a neoliberal fantasy land." That is precisely what the likes of Johnson, Farage, Normaln Lamont, Gove and the right win "bastards" (as John Major described them) want.

      The Remain arguments, though exaggerated, are nearer the truth, though difficult to get across to those who are so disillusioned by politics that they disbelieve every "fact" they are given

  3. "an exciting co-operative and civilising venture" - but is it? Perhaps it could be, but all too often the member nations do not cooperate, witness the failure to treat refugees humanely, or even stick to agreed policy on refugees.

    1. Agreed, the response to the refugee crisis has been and continues to be deplorable and shows the EU in its worst light. But the nations acting, or rather not acting, separately, would have been no better -probably even worse.

      Within the Union Angela Merkel has given a civilised lead, but with few followers, and the UK has been and continues to be, to our shame, one of the worst foot-draggers.

      However, if the EU didn't exist we should be calling for the creation of something similar to find an equitable and shared solution. That the EU is failing at the moment is not a reason for abandoning it and ceasing to try.

      Incidentally there is an excellent article on the refugee problem by Giles Fraser in yesterday's Guardian. Find it at:

      Should be blazoned on every hoarding in the land.