On the eve of Britain’s EU referendum (to be held on June 23), Max Cohen shares his thoughts on it.


For plenty, the politics of the EU referendum has been difficult to stomach and unengaging. In a political environment imbued with xenophobia and reactionary nationalism there has been little space for any uplifting or energising political discourse. Unashamedly, the Conservative politicians in favour of Brexit have been using the referendum campaign as a platform to wage a contest over the leadership of their party. An acerbic blue-fisted punch-up between the conservative elite has led to unfounded calls for PM David Cameron’s resignation and a political pantomime. As John McDonnell recently quipped: “The Tories seem to be transposing the gang-warfare of the Eton playground and the battles of the Tory leadership succession on to our national political scene”. It must be reiterated that David Cameron did not decide to hold the referendum after finding a sudden penchant for direct democracy. In reality, the decision to offer the plebiscite was a tactical move to appease the pro-Brexit Conservatives and quell the UKIP surge eating up the Conservative vote. This surge in right-wing xenophobic nationalism is a Pan-European phenomenon. On the political stage, this is reflected in the rise of such parties as the Austria Freedom Party, Alternative for Deutschland, France’s National Front, the Justice Party in Poland, 5 Star in Italy, Jobbik and Fidesz in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece to name just a few. In response to the failure of centre -left and -right governments around Europe to deal with the Eurozone crisis and fuelled by the large influx of displaced peoples from the Middle East and North Africa, xenophobic, nationalist sentiment has become a mainstay of Europe’s political culture. In regards to the EU, conveniently, this right offers a double scapegoat of an unaccountable bureaucratic monolith in Brussels allowing ‘swarms’ of faceless threatening ‘migrants’ to cross borders unchecked.

On an intriguing note, however, it is this very strain of conservatism that has made the EU referendum as peculiar as it has been intolerable. As mainstream opinion in the UK is in favour of staying in the EU – from, at least ‘officially’, all major political parties to international economic institutions – it is the Conservative Brexiteers who have had to fulfil the role of the anti-establishment. In this paradox, where reactionary forces are fighting the status-quo, established Conservative politicians have embraced the image and language of progressiveness. With rhetoric that clashes with all our preconceptions of the way politics usually functions, these reactionary revolutionaries are singing a curious and discordant siren song that resonates with our idealistic and progressive instincts in an attempt to lead us towards what Paul Mason has called their “neoliberal fantasy island”. In other words, a country leaping even further to the right than under David Cameron’s auspices. There are several campaigns advocating a Leave vote on June 23rd but a select number of Tory politicians have dominated the campaign: Boris Johnson, Lord Lawson, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith. In the heat of the referendum, these dissidents have revelled in their newfound role as political dissenters, railing against ‘the establishment’ at every podium and media opportunity. They are following in the footsteps of UKIP leader Nigel Farage, an ex-City commodity broker turned demagogue, who has successfully posed as the right’s anti-establishment poster-boy for over a decade. Enjoying their new cast as subversive renegades, the Brexiteers have dressed up their pursuit of an archaic conservative Britain in the language of progressive politics.

For one, Iain Duncan Smith’s manoeuvre to appeal beyond the conservative base featured his claim that the EU has become “a friend of the haves rather than a friend of the have-nots”. With just a cursory look over his political record, though, it appears that unapologetically attacking the “have-nots” has been a, if not the, cornerstone of Smith’s political career. Smith’s legacy as Secretary for State for Work and Pensions from 2010 – 2016 has been shamed by disabled activists as ‘six years of horror’ for his imposition of cuts to disability payments. The reforms to welfare he oversaw in the same period, including the infamous ‘sanctions regime’, have made food banks a ‘permanent fixture’ of British society. On worker’s rights, Smith opposed the EU social chapter in 1992, the work-time directive in 1996 which guarantees working hours in the week and proper breaks amongst other workers-rights and voted against the minimum wage in 1997. Paid annual leave, rights for part-time workers, equal pay, working time, maternity pay, health and safety in the workplace are all cherished workers-rights guaranteed by EU membership. Whether they would be safe in the hands of a galvanised Tory right including Smith post-Brexit is implausible, especially as ‘cutting EU red tape’ has been one of the fundamental messages of the Leave campaign.

In similar fashion, Conservative MP Michael Gove used his Vote Leave speech to declare that the restoration of British sovereignty and democracy in the event of Brexit would unleash a ‘democratic liberation’ of Europe. Speaking in solidarity with the people of Greece who “have had to endure dreadful austerity measures in order to secure bailouts from Brussels” and the people of Portugal who “have had to endure cuts to health, welfare and public services as the price of EU policies”, Gove claimed “a different Europe will be a liberation”. Part of a government who since 2010 until 2020 will have implemented the deepest cuts to public services since the early 20th century and someone who personally cut the British justice system into “crisis”, Michael Gove, of course, is no enemy of austerity. With seeming complete sincerity, Gove’s sudden declarations of commonality with the plight of the Greeks and Portuguese demonstrates a shameless attempt to mobilise a progressive vote in favour of reactionary ends. It is true that being members of the Eurozone (note: not the EU) has to a large extent forced Greece and Portugal to accept austerity measures but to suggest that Brexit would instigate an end to the economic misery, and sometimes fatality, of austerity is as risible as it is callous.

It does not require, of course, much insight to demonstrate the absurdity of a member of the unelected House of Lords lambasting the EU for its “contempt for democracy”. As a rare feature of this referendum, Lord Lawson’s contributions to the Leave campaign on economic issues have actually been largely restrained, rational and removed from the politics of fearmongering. However, his attempts to sell his case for exiting the EU on democratic principles like his fellow Tory cohorts is another example of the reactionary imposter disguised as democratic liberator.

It is comforting to note that this progressive veneer has, on the whole, been unconvincing. That the reactionary right – more concerned with “open” rather than “sovereign” borders – is the quintessence of your typical Brexiteer is partly reflected in the age-old trope that old age tends towards conservatism over idealism. According to the Telegraph, 73 per cent of those aged between 18-29 want to remain in the EU, while 63 per cent of those aged over 60 want to leave. As Freddy Sayers has written, ‘We’re in the strange situation where the older generations are crying out for change and young people are arguing for the status quo’. Compare these generational voting patterns with the results of the Scottish referendum in 2014. As the Lord Ashcroft polls indicated, a majority from ages 16 – 54 voted Yes to Scottish independence and from age 55 plus there was a majority in favour of remaining part of the UK. Undoubtedly, the idealism of the Yes campaign, built upon promises of removing Britain’s nuclear weapons, an end to austerity and continuing free education, and so on goes some way to explaining the majority in favour of Scottish independence amongst the idealistic youth. Idealism is the most usual quality of anti-establishment politics, but in the curious case of Brexit, it is the reactionaries who are leading the fight against the status-quo.

By implication, this is not to say a vote to Remain in the EU is progressive. These Brexiteers are not wrong when they say the EU, institutionally, is antithetical to democracy (indeed, the term ‘democratic deficit’ was coined in relation to the state of European politics in 1977). All of the EU’s faults and failures need to change. On whose terms such change happens, though, is critical. Frustratingly, in today’s political environment where political gain is revered over principle, the Remain camp has been criticised in some quarters for being too complacent by running an “ineffective” fear campaign that may be facilitating a Brexit win. I would argue, though, that the complacency of the Remain camp extends far beyond the result on June 23rd. Besides the usual hackneyed offerings of “change in Europe”, there has been no credible, or believable, roadmap offered to the British people to achieving an alternative EU. Laudable campaigns such as the European-wide ‘Democracy in Europe Movement’ and its British associated organisation, ‘Another Europe is Possible’, advocating ‘the democratisation of Europe’ unfortunately remain on the political periphery. It appears that, for now, a vote for Remain has to be justified solely on the basis of preventing a vindication of the Tory right. It is probably worth voting for.


Max Cohen