When Labour’s shadow business secretary Angela Eagle described Michael Gove’s recent remarks on the post-Brexit prospects for UK trade as ‘utopian rubbish’, she probably though that the most important concept within that formulation was ‘rubbish’.
Gove was speaking ‘rubbish’, of course. He sought to turn the UK’s crippling trade deficit – the thing that demonstrates how vulnerable our economy is – into a negotiating strength. I refuse to even contemplate the possibility that Gove actually believes his own argument; he just found a clever way to spin a weakness into a positive, given the obvious unpalatability of the real reason he supports Brexit (proven by the fact that he won’t tell us what it is).
And it is of course no surprise that Eagle believes that describing this argument as rubbish is a good idea – it is what you do when your political opponent is talking, well, rubbish. The thing that elevated Eagle’s response above the mundane was the prefix ‘utopian’, because the addition of this word gave the media the opportunity to tell the story of the Brexit debate in the way it clearly wants to tell the story.
This speaks to the quintessential problem holding back the In campaign. They might have the economics on their side, but utopian ideals have unfortunately been cornered by the Brexiters, with the acquiescence of the Bremain camp. The Out campaign generally sees the EU as an evil, liberty-curtailing force, from which Britain can be freed. Strangely the prevailing narrative around the In campaign fails to dispute this – the EU is evil, they come close to admitting, it’s just a necessary evil.
I’m not suggesting the media is letting the Out campaign off the hook. Increasingly, they are being asked to provide details on how the UK will end up better off post-Brexit and, crucially, how much better off. In the absence of such evidence, commentators are quite legitimately depicting Brexiters as purveyors of fairytale and fantasy.
The question is, is this actually an effective line of attack? Is it one that the In campaign should be looking to fuel?
To be utopian has come to mean that you have unrealistic expectations, or are over-optimistic about how future events might work out in your favour. But to criticise someone as utopian does not mean you disagree with them on the place they want to get to – utopia – but rather only on how difficult the journey to get there will be.
Clearly, the In campaign has much better data at its disposal. Projecting forward a state of affairs that already exists is obviously easier than providing forecasts for a fundamentally different reality. Yet if the evidence that we are better off in the EU is so overwhelming, why cast the other side as the utopians? It is an implicit concession that Brexit would probably be the best thing, but because we do not know this for certain, we should settle for what we have. Only the present is quantifiable.
Yet many people are sick of settling for what politicians tell them is the best we can do. We don’t trust the political class anymore and, at a more basic level, we don’t trust numbers. George Osborne actually gets this, which is why he is able to keep the austerity show on the road, by appealing to colloquial notions of common sense which define his agenda against politics, despite his consistent failure to make the numbers add up.
The tragedy is that the pro-Brexit message isn’t utopian at all. It is just as fearful a message as the In campaign is offering, full of claims about Brussels largesse and the threat posed by foreigners that actually seem to render Britain rather timid, equipped for flight but not to fight. Few in the Out campaign suggest any fundamental change to the British economic model is required – they just want it to be less regulated (especially where the regulations in question concern employment rights).
This is hardly utopian – only people that have internalised the inherent wrongness of economic regulation and international law could possibly believe otherwise. Yet this is exactly the perspective which seems to dominate both campaigns. The In campaign suggests that EU membership is okay only because European regulations are not quite as onerous as the out campaign would have us believe. Ideal, no, but okay nevertheless.
But is ‘okay’ good enough anymore? Contributions like that made by Eagle are actually projecting on to the Out campaign an idealism that isn’t really there, at a time when people are desperate for something different.
It should not be necessary for the left to pretend the EU works perfectly in order to make the case for Britain to stay in. If the left is not arguing for change, then what is it for? That’s why the intervention made earlier this month by Jeremy Corbyn – that the way Europe is governed needs radical reform just as the way Britain is governed needs radical reform – was exactly the kind of thing that Labour figures should be saying. But they need to go one step further, arguing that the former is key to the latter. If we hear more of that kind of idealism from him and others, we might start to see the value of utopianism for the In campaign.
Craig Berry is Deputy Director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) at the University of Sheffield