The politics of platitudes
Commissaress discusses the implications of the EU referendum campaign on political discourse
It almost seems too decisive to be true. By the time this issue of the Weekly Worker is published, allegedly one of the defining moments of British and European history, and of Britain’s place in the 21st century world, will have passed.
Various claims have been made about precisely how much influence this decision will have on the future of Britain and Europe, ranging from the sceptical to the wildly hyperbolic. The press, and most people with whom I have discussed the referendum, seem to agree that this influence will be rather large, and there is reason to believe so. For obvious reasons, British foreign relations and trade will be affected, and in terms of the bigger picture, the referendum could act as a gauge of the longevity of the European project and the extent to which British nationalism has resurged. It will also considerably affect how much ranting my friends will have to endure at school from June 24. But for all the claims that this is a ‘once-in-a-generation ballot’ determining Britain’s relationship with the European Union (which, some people seem to be forgetting, is a bourgeois politico-economic and judicial confederation) it is not actually going to directly impact on the working class that much.
This often goes unsaid, since people do not want to sound nihilistic or apathetic. But what would happen if Britain really were to leave? The laws governing immigration, trade, workers’ rights, diplomacy and so on would be set solely by rich, white, male ruling class members in Westminster, rather than an additional layer of, er, rich, white, male ruling class members in Brussels. These people in Westminster - shock, horror! - are no more likely to act in workers’ interests than those in Brussels. This should be quite obvious, especially to socialists, who acknowledge (theoretically, at least) that all bourgeois governments and organisations are the same in essence and in purpose. In practice, however, it does not seem to be so simple.
The Socialist Workers Party has argued that we should leave the EU because of “its lack of democracy, its support for corporate and economic elites, and its failure to defend working people”1 - as if leaving an individual organisation is going to mitigate problems caused by capitalism! On the other side of the debate, it is easy to confuse the ideological internationalism represented by the EU with actual proletarian internationalism, but proclaiming a trade bloc like the EU to be the latter is obviously misplaced. Regardless of whether or not Britain has one more set of bureaucrats making laws for it, capitalism and oppression will live on, as ugly as they have always been. We should harbour no illusions about that.
The referendum and discussion surrounding it have been interesting for different reasons. Like any public discourse, it offers some insight into the state of class-consciousness and general popular opinion. The EU is as contradictory as the liberalism it represents, which is partially why the left is so divided about it: on the one hand, its rhetoric about workers’ protection and freedom of movement seems vaguely progressive, while, on the other, it is a single market which quite blatantly serves corporate interests and obstructs measures like nationalisation. Correspondingly, the response to it seems to have been quite contradictory too. Despite the relative practical irrelevance of its outcome for the working class, the referendum has elicited a considerable amount of engagement and passion: a last-minute rush to register to vote caused an extension of the deadline, the streets of London have been peppered with signs voicing support for either side of the debate (we have a ‘remain’ sign in our front window, after my 10-year-old brother insisted on it!) and for the first time ever, my brother’s primary school deigned to inform its students about why exactly the school was closing on polling day. This apparent surge in engagement is not unlike that which preceded the Scottish independence referendum, and is also a case of people getting excited about a decision of little practical importance, which amounts to a redrawing of arbitrary borders.
At the same time, though, this referendum seems to be seeing more apathy than the Scottish referendum, which had an impressively high turnout of 85% overall, and a turnout of 75% amongst 16- to 17-year-olds.2 Young people are far more apathetic this time round: under-25s are twice as likely as average not to vote3 - a figure which was not helped by the laughably patronising and off-putting adverts to encourage us to take part, which look like they were made by our grandparents (the cringe-inducing hash tag ‘#votin’ should tell you all you need to know).
But this does not seem to be because people think the outcome of the referendum does not have much practical significance. From my experience, people who were not planning to vote did not feel that they knew enough to make a decision, and the studies seem to back this up: The Independent found that 61% of people thought British laws had to be approved by the European parliament and 75% did not know how many countries were in the EU4, while, in the words of an Ipsos Mori report published earlier this month, “the public have a number of significant misperceptions about the EU and how it affects life in the UK … we get some things right, but we’re more often very wrong.”5 This is fair enough, although it does point to the failure of the government to adequately inform people in a way that we would trust.
Where this whole issue of apathy takes a disturbing turn is where it appears to be linked to the trend towards blind anti-establishment sentiment, which has been on the rise in Europe lately. It is no secret that politicians are regarded as the least trusted profession,6 and that support for mainstream political parties in Europe is rapidly waning.7 It does not seem like much of a stretch to view the apathetic attitudes towards the referendum as an extension of this trend, especially given the extent to which the Conservatives have dominated both sides of the debate - lending the whole thing a certain ‘establishment’ feeling, which alienates those who oppose the Conservatives and the governing ‘elite’. In fact, I was discussing the referendum with a fellow second-generation immigrant, who did not intend to vote even though she was pro-EU, because she viewed it as legitimising the government, which she did not trust at all; but was not really sure why not or what an alternative would be. This is a perfect example of this sort of anti-establishment sentiment: the sort driven by an antipathy towards ‘the elite’, rather than by any sort of progressive consciousness. It has observably been on the rise for a while now - indeed, I remember discussing the dangers of blind antipathy and support for so-called ‘anti-establishment’ politicians in my first full article for this paper last summer, at the height of ‘Corbynmania’.8 There is no change here.
There is a change, however, concerning how obviously damaging this sentiment is. Obviously, masses who are dissatisfied but passive and have no theoretical direction are always going to be a problem from a socialist perspective - particularly if they then channel their dissatisfaction into shilling for supposedly radical bourgeois politicians. But the EU debate, and all of the discussion surrounding it, has demonstrated another problem. Anti-establishmentarianism is not making people less likely to buy politicians’ bombast. It is making them more likely to do so - as long as this bombast is dressed up in anti-establishment rhetoric with a good dose of ‘elite’-bashing on the side. The ‘leave’ campaign took full advantage of this. Admittedly the ‘remain’ side was generally lacklustre and failed to inspire, but at the very least, it made full use of facts and data, while the Brexiteers attacked it for ‘scaremongering’ and proceeded to offer up no concrete plans or evidence. They preferred to utter vague ideological platitudes about ‘restoring democracy’ and ‘taking back control’, falsely insinuate that incidents like the steel closures would not have happened if it were not for the EU and admonish ‘elites’ despite being a campaign run by and using cherry-picked statistics from these very elites.
It is worrying that this was allowed to go on during Brexit debates with barely any criticism from the audience. The EU issue is by no means black and white - yes, it is a capitalist bloc, but the effects of leaving it on immigration and nationalism in the UK also need to be considered. Healthy discourse was necessary for any informed decision and one thing is certain: people have developed a tolerance of evasive comments and ideological bluster from politicians perceived to be ‘against the elite’.
There appears to be more scepticism towards the political establishment in this era of extremes. But this is not improving discourse - it is making it worse.
8. ‘Literally an infantile disorder’, September 24 2015.