So many arguments for Brexit. They can’t all be right

Published by The i Paper & The Independent (22nd February, 2016)

During one of last year’s election debates, Nigel Farage tried to grab the public’s attention with a hideous call for a ban on foreigners with Aids being treated on the NHS. It was dog whistle politics of the most depressing kind. Among his fiercest critics was Respect party chief George Galloway, who tweeted that such a bigoted smear should disqualify the Ukip leader ‘from any civilised company henceforth.’

Yet fast forward to today and this pair of publicity-crazed egomaniacs have become a dodgy double act promoting Brexit – the ‘toxic twins’, as one observer dubbed them. Given their record for alienating allies, this bromance is unlikely to last long. Galloway later insisted the pair were not pals but ‘allies in one cause. Like Churchill and Stalin…’ Certainly he can never be accused of having a low opinion of himself, although does he sees himself like Churchill or Stalin?

Perhaps Boris Johnson, the best-selling biographer and part-time London mayor, can clarify matters now he has joined this gang. Johnson’s revelation yesterday was, of course, really about his leadership ambitions for all his straight-faced denials and protestations of loyalty to David Cameron. He says he has spent years pondering the issue of Europe. Yet he has turned his decision into a drawn-out drama to hog the headlines and underline his importance. The aim is clear: to succeed the Prime Minister after dominating the campaign for withdrawal.

The stakes in this struggle are now even higher; it is a battle for Downing Street as well as for the future of our country and our continent. This is politics at its most primeval alongside serious issues of defence, diplomacy and economics. Yet the creation of such strange bedfellows to fight the EU underscores how those pushing for Brexit are united only by loathing of Brussels. No wonder they are unable to come up with a common vision of what a vote to leave would mean for Britain.

Those pushing this outmoded cause are a motley collection of protest politicians, elderly ex-ministers and people with thwarted ambitions, given a veneer of respectability by Michael Gove’s decision to join their ranks and a frisson of excitement by Boris. They rage about red tape, bang on about borders and sell a phoney dream of independence. But some proclaim a free-market future for Britain free of regulation, while others promote an end to ‘neo-liberalism’ and an ‘anti-Socialist’ union. Then there are the Little Englanders seeking a return to past certainties.

It is hard to see how Britain leaving the EU could satisfy such diversity of claims. Former chancellor Lord Lawson bemoans ‘the frenzy of regulatory activism’ and ‘mesh of European Union regulation’ that is damaging and costly to business. Chris Grayling seeks fewer health and safety rules. Meanwhile the likes of transport union boss Mick Cash claims the club is ‘irreversibly committed to privatisation, welfare cuts, low wages and the erosion of trade union rights.’ And Labour’s Kate Hoey, a former minister and MP for almost three decades, says she is engaged in revolt against the political establishment as she fights alongside six Tory cabinet ministers.

It would be hard not to laugh if the consequences were not so serious. Forget Boris for a moment. Some of these people have spent years campaigning for this referendum, yet cannot even agree which country offers the right vision of life outside the EU. Ukip’s optimistic MP Douglas Carswell and the Freedom Association see Britain as a supercharged version of Singapore, open to flows of people and capital. Others advocate the charms of Iceland and Greenland, while the energetic Tory MEP Daniel Hannan is among those suggesting Switzerland and Norway offer guides for our relationship with Europe.

But David Davis says the Norway option ‘is not really appropriate for a major power like the UK.’ Another senior Tory, former minister John Redwood, also insists his side ‘does not want the UK to seek a Norway-style deal, as we see no need to pay any money into the EU once we have left.’ He proposes Canada, Australia and Mexico as role models since they ‘trade well with the EU without having to pay for the privilege.’ Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Vote Leave, pointed to Turkey since it does not adopt EU social and employment legislation. Another group even highlighted the visa rules of Vanuatu in the South Pacific.

There are differing stances on the Stay side, of course. But this matters less since they are arguing for the status quo, so voters can see the validity of their claims. Meanwhile their rivals peddle myths. No wonder Grayling squirmed on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme when pressed repeatedly to clarify his ‘utopia’ of a trade deal with no costs and no freedom of movement. His notion that one of the world’s biggest economies could sort a new deal in two years – similar to Greenland, a nation of 56,000 people reliant on the fishing industry – was simply absurd. Canada took seven years to conclude similar discussions – and that was without any bitterness caused by rejection.

These people offer pipe dreams. Pick any nation as a role model: they must still trade with Europe, permit movement of people and remain part of the globalised world. The rules would remain, but we would give up any say in them. This debate is really a proxy for other political causes. There are those for whom it is genuinely about sovereignty, the issue that turned Gove from Blairite into a Bennite. But they are joined on the left by those driven by dislike of capitalism, and on the right by those sceptical of the state or simply seething with distaste for migrants and modernity. And now Boris has entered the fray, ruthlessly turning a referendum on Europe into his own personal fight.

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