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3 June 2016

A reluctant Remainer, the end of border controls and why it is healthy to sneer at toffs

First thoughts on the week's news, from sheepish Etonians to my EU referendum prediction.

By Peter Wilby

Since I shall be abroad on referendum day, I have already cast my vote for Remain. I did so without enthusiasm. I agree with the Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins that “the EU is anti-working-class, anti-socialist and anti-democratic”. Moreover, many warnings about the supposed consequences of Brexit strike me as things to be welcomed rather than feared. A fall in asset values, particularly house prices, would hit the rich and give poorer and younger people a chance to acquire assets of their own. A run on sterling would help British exports. A decline in foreign investment would stop so many profits from British workers’ labours going overseas. A weaker City of London would help rebalance an economy that has become too dependent on the parasitic financial services industry.

However, a socialist Britain, nationalising vital industries, eradicating poverty and spending lavishly on the NHS, seems no more likely as an outcome of Brexit than the right’s vision of a buccaneering Britain sailing the high seas, 18th-century-style, to trade freely with distant lands. Whichever way the vote goes, big corporations and financial markets will continue to dictate most government policies. The most significant result of a Leave vote would be to strengthen the more reactionary, xenophobic forces in British society.


Falling Leaves

Whatever their uncertainties in other respects, opinion polls agree that support for Leave is strongest among older age groups while young people overwhelmingly support Remain. Since the old are more likely to vote this is usually described as an advantage for the Brexiteers. I think the opposite. The old tend to be risk-averse, particularly since many depend on fixed incomes from pensions and other assets. It is a peculiar reversal that they want to follow a course that involves so much uncertainty, while their grandchildren urge them not to be so reckless. Yet many may not yet have paid much attention to the issues. I suspect they will switch in the final week of the campaign and that Leave’s support is much softer than anyone thinks.

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Barring events such as a big terrorist attack – which could create a national mood for closing the borders and turning our backs on the world – I expect a comfortable victory for Remain, perhaps by as much as 62-38.

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Through the net

Talking of borders, I hope, once the referendum is over, to hear less of the demand that “we must take control”. The phrase would have been meaningless in pre-1914 Europe where hardly anybody owned a passport, mainly because the growth of railway travel was thought to make borders impossible to control.  Today, with international travel infinitely easier and millions moving around daily for business or pleasure, the only countries that enjoy anything resembling complete control of their borders are Australia, which nobody can easily get to, and North Korea, which nobody wants to go to.

The US has 11.4 million illegal immigrants, many of whom endured a five-day march across the Sonoran Desert from Mexico to get there. No doubt they would find a way over, round or through Donald Trump’s wall. In the Mediterranean, we see every day the hazardous journeys desperate people will make to reach western Europe. Of the UK’s 330,000 net inward migration, only a little over half is attributable to the EU. Non-EU migration alone easily exceeded the 100,000 that David Cameron promised – “no ifs, no buts” – as an overall limit.

If employers have jobs and migrants want to work, they will find their way to each other. The only means of cutting UK inward migration is to induce a long and deep recession. Which, according to some economists, is exactly what Brexit would do.


Sheepish Etonians

It is not just Brexit that divides the Tories. In the Times a few days ago, Matthew Parris, a former Tory MP and aide to Margaret Thatcher, wrote: “sneering at public school toffs is healthy. . . People must be made to feel sheepish about going to Eton or Harrow.” He welcomed government proposals that civil-service recruiters and big employers should distinguish potential from polish by asking job applicants about their socio-economic and educational backgrounds. Then Lord Waldegrave, the provost (chair of the governors) of Eton, threatened to resign from the Conservative Party. Children, he argued, should not be punished for their parents’ decisions nor jobs filled “not on the basis of merit but of social engineering”.

Waldegrave, educated at Eton and Oxford, was certainly not punished for his parents’ decisions, nor for those of his ancestors, of whom one received the Chewton estate in Somerset from Mary I and another got an earldom from George II, both no doubt entirely on merit. Also on merit, I am sure, Waldegrave became a Foreign Office minister under Thatcher and, despite sending 38 letters to MPs telling them that a boycott on selling arms to Iraq still stood when he had just relaxed it, survived to join the cabinet. After the electors of Bristol West dismissed him in 1997 (perhaps they were trying a little social engineering), he got a life peerage, his elder brother having inherited the family earldom. In his memoirs, he recalled gazing at the common people from his ministerial car and thinking they must lead “shadowy, dull” lives compared to his own. And he was supposed to be a wet Tory.


Britain loves an understudy

We went to see Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre in central London where the star was advertised as Sheridan Smith, given an OBE last year for services to drama. In her much publicised and controversial absence from “stress and exhaustion”, her part was taken by her understudy, Natasha Barnes, who got a tumultuous standing ovation; far more ecstatic, I imagine, than anything Smith ever got. Barnes was good but not that good. Nor was the show. But the British love understudies, perhaps because they think they are close relations of underdogs. 

This article appears in the 01 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind