Friday 10 June 2016

Follow The Leader

The EU referendum campaign is heating up. Last week we had the rather splendid intervention of former Prime Minister John Major, who accurately said:

[Vote Leave] are feeding out to the British people a whole galaxy of inaccurate and frankly untrue information.

This is undoubtedly correct. For example, we have Vote Leave's infamous claim that the UK is paying £350 million a week to the EU. That is not true. Not even under the most generous interpretation. It's more than fair to criticise the Leave campaign when they start making things up in the hope voters are gullible enough to believe them.

Major joins in with a vast chorus of the great and the good, telling us we should stay in. This is a decidedly mixed blessing for the Remain campaign; it represents the establishment in a time of anti-establishment rage.

The list of authorities who oppose Brexit, or warn about its negative consequences, is impressive:

  • The Prime Minister
  • The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, and Home Secretary
  • President Obama
  • Senior US politicians, including former defence and treasury secretaries of both parties
  • The Governor of the Bank of England
  • The Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, and India
  • More than 150 scientists in the Royal Society, including Stephen Hawking
  • The Royal College of Midwives
  • The International Monetary Fund
  • The Confederation of British Industry
  • The Trade Union Congress
  • Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party
  • Sadiq Khan, newly elected Mayor of London
  • The overwhelming majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party
  • All living former Prime Ministers: John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown
  • The Green Parties (in England and Wales, and in Scotland)
  • Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalists
  • The Liberal Democrats
  • The Scottish National Party, led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
That's just from memory, without searching the Internet for a full list. It's a mighty assembly of the national and international elite.

Some of them have specialist knowledge we should respect. Economic forecasting is far from an exact science; but when more than ninety percent of university economists believe Brexit would hurt the UK, it at least merits attention. When UK scientific leaders say Brexit would damage Britain's excellence in scientific research, they are in a position to know. When President Obama discusses US trade policy, we would do well to take him seriously.

It's perfectly fair to dislike the pro-EU authorities. Many of the people in the above list could do with being taken down a peg or two. Several are responsible for policies which hurt the rest of us, intentionally or not.

But this isn't throwing a custard pie in the face of authority. It's a lot more serious than that. It's a drastic and irreversible change to the UK's international relations.

If we, the regular voters, get it wrong, then we are the ones who will suffer most. The worst David Cameron will get is a luxurious early retirement. If Brexit damages the British economy, it will affect our jobs, mortgages, and public services. We need to look past our well-founded suspicion of the authorities, and consider the possibility that in this particular case, they know what they are talking about.

If we do so, we will be in good company. It's easy enough to dismiss the IMF and CBI as part of a cosy establishment conspiracy. But the TUC? The Royal College of Midwives? The Scottish National Party? Jeremy Corbyn?

Less than two years ago, the SNP came very close to demolishing the British state. It's ridiculous to dismiss them as pawns of that same state.

I've lambasted Corbyn for his flaws as Leader of the Opposition, but I'll say this about him: He's honest. He may be the most honest person in British politics. He spent more than thirty years as a backbencher because he refused to compromise his principles, and has not changed his tune since becoming leader. When Corbyn campaigns for an In vote, we can be confident he believes what he says.

If Obama, Corbyn, Cameron, and Sturgeon agree on something, at the very least it is worth a look. The Argument From Authority is a logical fallacy, but so is the Argument From Rebellion. As responsible adults, we cannot dismiss the idea of an In vote just because so many authorities support it.

The Brexiteers are a much more dubious lot. Their most prominent spokesmen are Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Both are attention-seeking buffoons. Johnson would say or do just about anything to become Prime Minister. Farage indulges in xenophobia himself, and panders to it in his supporters. Among world leaders, their only major supporter is Vladimir Putin.

Once you look past the colourful frontmen, it gets even worse. Brexit is supported by a number of billionaires:
  • Stockbroker Peter Hargreaves
  • The Barclay brothers, owners of the Telegraph Media Group
  • Richard Desmond, owner of the Daily Express and noted pornographer
  • Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sun and Times newspapers
  • Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail group
Hargreaves, at least, is honest about what he wants. He believes the "splendid insecurity" outwith the European Union would force us to become more competitive as an economy. That translates to you and me working harder, for longer hours, with fewer public services, for the benefit of people like Peter Hargreaves. I'm not sure what those of us who are not billionaires are meant to get out of it.

As for the media barons, let's just say they might not have our best interests at heart.

In the Brexit campaign, thoughtful and responsible leaders are few and far between. Justice Secretary Michael Gove and the Labour MP Gisela Stuart are about the best I can think of. Even these two have demeaned themselves by going along with the untruths spun by the likes of Boris Johnson. These fabrications are so serious they have motivated Tory MP Sarah Wollaston to change sides from Exit to Remain.

You can't choose your supporters, and maybe it's just coincidence the Out campaign is dominated by clowns, bigots and right-wing tycoons. Then again, maybe the clowns represent the true face of Brexit, and the likes of Gove and Stuart are no more than a fig-leaf of respectability.

As a Remain supporter, I will say this: I am no particular fan of Nicola Sturgeon, John Major, or Jeremy Corbyn. There are important areas where I disagree with them very strongly. Nevertheless, in their own way, they represent what is decent and reasonable in British politics. I am much happier standing with them, than I would be with Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage.

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