Jonathan McHugh
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The left wing case for leaving the EU

Supporters of the EU sneer “Little Englander” at those with a different opinion, but most of the arguments against membership are left-leaning and liberal.

Despite the denials by our political and media elite, the most important issue of the 2015 election was Britain’s membership of the European Union. Nearly four million votes went to Ukip, a party that has been consistently abused and dismissed by our controllers, with much of that support coming from former Labour voters, while big numbers of people backed the little-loved Conservatives.

Both parties offered referendums on Britain leaving the EU – Ukip powerfully, the Tories reluctantly. It is not hard to work out why they did so well, yet there is still little acknowledgement of this fact from the establishment. An arrogant refusal to listen to the public has left Labour and the Liberal Democrats in tatters. Nick Clegg could moan about “identity” politics in the election’s aftermath, but this matters to the majority of people.

Our membership of the EU undermined the major debates and warped most of the policies being put forward in the build-up to the election. The EU will influence the future of the NHS just as it helped smooth Tory privatisation of the Post Office and the organisational break-up of the railways; it is in tune with austerity and drives a larger and more deadly version in the eurozone; it escalates problems linked to housing, work, wages and education; creates worry and stirs up anger and threatens people’s sense of self. A lazy acceptance of establishment propaganda and a fear of being branded “xenophobic” have silenced many liberals and left-wingers. And yet the EU is driven by big business. This is a very corporate coup.

It is essential to understand where the EU is heading. The mission? To create a centralised superstate. As the former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso said in 2007: “. . . I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empire. We have the dimension of empire.” While there have been idealists involved and progressive laws made along the way, at its core it is undemocratic and distant, a threat to all those living in its shadow. However sweet the propaganda, it is a tool for multinationals, another part of the globalisation process.

A majority of the British population is either opposed to or sceptical about our inclusion in the EU, and yet any serious discussion of what it represents and where it is leading is near enough impossible. Instead we have McCarthy-like campaigns directed at those who have a different vision for Britain and the other member countries.

However, decades of pro-EU spin have failed to convince the mass of working people of its worth; the only reason their opposition has been so restrained is the secrecy and speed of the takeover. This has occurred across generations, a slow-motion transfer of control, driven by the rich and powerful. Our leaders are complicit, know where their futures rest. There are careers to protect and promote, fortunes to be made. The feelings of the wider society are ignored.

The idea put across by its promoters, that the EU is somehow synonymous with “Europe”, is nonsense and yet this use of language has become commonplace. We are told that to be anti-EU is to be “anti-European”, but, in reality, to oppose the EU makes you pro-European. If Europe is its people and cultures then it is surely better that France, Greece, Poland and every other member state becomes a proper democracy again. If the main legacy of the European Enlightenment was the collectivisation of political power in the hands of the masses, then the EU model is the antithesis of this: centralising decision-taking in the hands of an unaccountable technocratic elite.

A single European nation suits the US government, its multinationals and its military. One leader is a lot easier to deal with than many. The same goes for a single currency. This is clear in moves by the EU and the US to impose the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which will allow the corporations of both blocs the chance to exploit each other’s markets, smoothing out “obstacles” in the process. The NHS would be targeted by US health-care companies and trade union rights threatened. Negotiations to bring in TTIP have been taking place in secret. There is no voting involved, no pretence at democracy, little proper coverage by the media. The main parties are broadly supportive. With TTIP comes the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system, whereby business can take governments to court if its profits are infringed upon. This is mind-blowing stuff, but our politicians say nothing.

The media tell us that the Tories are anti-EU while Labour and the Lib Dems are fighting their narrow-mindedness, and Ukip is dismissed as a far-right group bordering on the fascist. This is bubblegum politics. Little Europeans sneer “Little Englander” at those with a different opinion, peddling stereotypes, unwilling to consider the bigger arguments.

That it was the Conservatives who took Britain into a six-nation EEC in 1973 is dismissed. This was a betrayal of the Commonwealth, which a mere 28 years earlier had fought with us against two of these countries, the then fascist Germany and Italy. Commonwealth economies suffered as a result. Prime Minister Ted Heath insisted that the Common Market was no more than a trade arrangement, but a large chunk of the population was outraged and saw it for what it was, and Heath would later admit he had lied about its long-term goal. Labour was socialist at this point and along with the trade unions naturally opposed the Tories. Despite some big talk, Margaret Thatcher and John Major did not take us out, while Tony Blair would have joined the eurozone if he’d had his way. Backing the EU because the Tories are supposedly against it is pathetic. The EU is not a party issue. It is much more important.

David Cameron is softly pro-EU but has been forced into holding a referendum by rebel elements in his party. Ed Miliband was also a firm supporter, his own sceptical backbenchers keeping quiet for fear of being branded right-wing by the Labour Party’s thought police.

Last year saw the death of two genuinely left-wing figures within a matter of days in Tony Benn and Bob Crow. These were honest men who refused to bend to the group mind. They were idealists and knew where the EU was leading us. In later life Benn was patronised as a well-meaning crank when he tried to talk seriously about the EU. Crow died young and his dream of a left-wing, anti-EU party will be harder to achieve now he is gone. But this is what Britain needs. Urgently.

The move towards a European state is a long way down the line and yet even this simple truth is denied by those whose careers are sewn into the process. According to House of Commons Library research, if one counts regulations as well as directives, half of all UK laws are derived from Brussels, measures that cannot be reversed once passed; but if even one law is made outside parliament, then that is a huge abuse of power.

The EU has a president and a militarised police force in EUROGENDFOR, is pushing for its own army, and has helped stir up the crisis in Ukraine with its expansionism. Its single currency has caused untold misery for tens of millions of working people across Europe, yet there is no apology, just an arrogant demand for greater powers. The Greeks are branded lazy and forced to cut services in return for more loans.

If there is a referendum on our EU membership in this new parliament, the propaganda unleashed by the establishment will be unparalleled. From the Guardian to the Times, from the BBC to Rupert Murdoch, our masters will close ranks as withdrawal is deemed a disaster. But would Britain be damaged? For a start, we would save roughly £10bn a year in our net handout to the EU. This is a huge sum, which, if used properly, would benefit those who actually pay these taxes. The idea that our neighbours would no longer trade with us is simply untrue. Trade would continue and we would be able to deal with the rest of the world more freely. Only about 15 per cent of British GDP is accounted for by our exports to the rest of the EU and this percentage is falling as the eurozone stagnates. The future for Britain lies in building ever better trade relations with the economically expanding parts of the world, such as the Commonwealth countries. Britain would be liberated.

Most of the arguments against EU membership are left-leaning and liberal. Ukip has done so well because it tells the truth about the EU, even if some of its tactics and emphases put people off. That it can pull in Labour voters despite its Thatcherite, non-patriotic economics is revealing. Just as depressing has been the cowardice of the so-called independent parties. The Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru exist to promote localism and the devolution of power, yet they refuse to challenge an EU that is about the centralising of power.

The Scottish referendum quickly became about money rather than identity, yet few talked seriously about the madness of a standalone Scotland re-entering the EU as a new applicant and adopting the euro. Why would the SNP want to gain independence and then hand it over to a larger, more remote body, where it would have less say than now in how it runs its own affairs? Why would it want to have even less control of its economy? You have only to look at Sinn Fein’s attempts to keep Ireland out of the euro for a comparison. The whole debate about Scotland leaving the UK seems pretty pointless if the SNP’s willingness to join the EU isn’t challenged. If Scotland had its own currency and rejected Brussels it would make sense, but leave the UK and join the EU instead?

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Open borders are essential to the EU’s single state. It makes for a more mobile (often cheaper) workforce on one level, allows business and the wealthy easy access on another. It will also change voting patterns, as there will come a point when elections are going to be open to whoever lives in a country at a given time. There has always been movement of people and there always will be. Leaving the EU will not stop this, just take us away from the Fortress Europe model.

Ukip targets poorer workers, warning of the threat to working-class jobs and wages in the same way certain trade unions do, but it ignores “high-end” immigration and the negative effect this has had on the lives of the everyday person, especially in and around London. This probably hindered the party in last month’s election, limiting the swing from Labour. Everything we have has been put up for sale and the rich and powerful of the world are making a fortune at our expense. House prices are driven up and new properties sold as investments rather than homes. In large areas of London local people have been driven out, their culture erased. This creates huge ripples that spread through the rest of the country. It is natural to feel angry at this unfairness.

We are continually told that Britain’s muted opposition to the EU is somehow a quirk that shows us to be intolerant, but we are one of the most open-minded countries in the world. And the idea that every European is happy being in the EU is untrue. Most are resigned, feel more powerless and despondent than we do. The need for a left-wing opposition to the EU should be taken care of by the Labour Party, but it lost its nerve when Thatcher was in power, along with elements in the trade union movement, selling its soul to Brussels in return for some positive legislation. Then it was hijacked and turned into New Labour. Its collapse in the election is a continuation of this thread. Too many voters see it as hypocritical, unpatriotic, politically correct and in the hands of an aloof, wealthy clique.

Most important in all this is people’s sense of identity. This is seldom mentioned by anyone with a public voice, perhaps for fear of being branded “racist”. The less you have, maybe the more your identity matters, and the powerful elite do not have the right to sell this off to the EU or anyone else. Our controllers, tucked away in their big houses, worshipping money either openly or from behind their fake-liberal lectures, do not understand or care about this, and yet it is in the mass population that the real integration has always occurred, where diversity isn’t measured by the colour of your skin. This is ongoing, part of the British tradition. It is no shame to want to preserve your culture.

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During this year’s election campaign Tony Blair argued that the people should not be given the chance to vote in an EU referendum because, in effect, we could not be trusted to make the “sensible choice”. His elitist questioning of the intelligence of the electorate is no different from those 19th-century reactionary Tories who argued on similar grounds that the franchise should not be extended to women and the working class. Most within our political and media classes and big business seem to think the same way as Blair, want the EU issue sidelined, ruled off-limits for democratic debate.

The EU offers us little. It costs billions to belong to a club that interferes in our affairs and has created needless divisions, one that will ultimately lead to our removal from the map. If a European superstate is achieved, the resentment and anger will flow through the centuries to come, creating resistance movements right across the continent.

Leaving the EU would save Britain money that could (in the right hands) be ploughed back into the public sector to safeguard jobs and services. And yet, nearly every mainstream politician lifts his nose in the air and turns away, embarrassed at ideas he considers crass. Across the world people are fighting to be more independent, not less so. They crave democracy and accountability, want to see their identities and cultures live on. The European Union is not new and it is not progressive, its trail winding back to the Roman empire. Britain needs to look to the future.

John King is the author of novels such as “The Football Factory” and “Human Punk”. He has acted as an adviser for the People’s Pledge and co-owns London Books

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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