On June 23, Britain will vote in a referendum about whether to say in the European Union, or leave. The vote is Conservative Party leader David Cameron’s concession to his party’s hard-right base, an attempt to win back voters who previously deserted them for the U.K. Independence Party, or Ukip — the sort of people for whom the EU is a pinko conspiracy with its own rouble. The “EUSSR,” as they dub it.
Cameron was not actually terribly keen on holding a referendum, as the Telegraph reported in 2012. But despite the risks, he had to placate rebellious backbenchers and defecting voters.
On the side of staying in, the “remain”’ camp (or Bremain) includes the leaderships of all the major parties and most of the minor ones, the majority of businesses, the Trade Union Congress, and a good chunk of the media: The Mirror, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Economist, The New Statesman, and The Independent, and even Rupert Murdoch’s The Times.
The Brexit side looks a lot weaker, with only a wing of the Tory party, a handful of Labour MPs, Ukip, and the far right on side. Even the classically eurosceptic Sun newspaper hadn’t made up its mind by early March, as the Guardian reported
Indeed that is the true referendum choice: life outside the EU, or within it as it disintegrates. The status quo is not on offer.” And on its side it also has the mass market tabloids like the Express, the Daily Mail, and The Star.
Predictably, ruling elites have relied on the methods of Project Fear. But the fear mongering of the pro-Brexit media has hardly been better, pivoting on racist panic and nationalist resentment.
The referendum campaign, as filtered through the media, is an argument between the pro-business center-right, and the traditionally middle-class hard-right. To get to anything like the truth, you almost have to read them against one another.
Much of the Brexit campaign in the U.K. media is led by the most racist memes pushed by the UK Independence Party. In 2014, leader Nigel Farage, claiming that the ‘quality’ of migrants mattered as much as the “quantity,” claimed that Romanians were “forced into a life of crime”
by poverty and that he would be “concerned” if a Romanian family moved next door to him, as BBC reported.
The theme of foreign crooks getting into Britain was quickly taken up in the right-wing press as a reason for Brexit. The Daily Mail, for example, claims that Britain was forced to let in “50 foreign criminals” under EU laws. The Mirror points out that, even if the list wasn’t dishonest, the figure comprises 0.02 percent of the total number of migrants who arrived in September last year alone. However, the theme of “EU criminals” is a constant recourse in the europhobic media, and the Daily Express returned to the claim in April, claiming that “250 offenders from European Union countries” were “serving life sentences here”.
The Express, which has supported Ukip, took the step of recycling a piece of Ukip propaganda about the migrant camp in Calais. Whereas human rights campaigners have pointed out the atrocious record of the French government in its treatment of these refugees, the “horror” of the camp according to Ukip and the Express, is precisely that it is filled with refugees.
The Brexit camp also relies on a racist elision of immigration with terrorism. Justice Minister Dominic Raab is given space in The Sun to claim that “Brexit will stop terror leaking into U.K.”
The attempt to link immigration from the EU to terrorism falls flat on its face. As Jason Burke points out in The Guardian, “Neither the 7/7 bombers who attacked London in 2005 nor the unsuccessful 21/7 bombers who followed them came from elsewhere in Europe. Only a tiny minority of other attacks over the following half decade or so have any connection to the EU. Some involved migrants, but rarely from Europe.”
The argument that immigration would fall after Brexit is not necessarily even true. EU membership provides a legal framework for the movement of labour within its borders, but the decisive pull factors for migration would still be there — the demand for either skilled or low-wage labour. Open Europe, the free market think-tank, argues in The Guardian that “an influx of low-skilled workers would still be necessary to feed the demands of the labor market” even in the event of Brexit, and a new framework would be needed to accommodate that.
However, it is logical that the Brexit camp should focus on immigration since, as the business magazine The Economist points out, “immigration is one subject on which Leave campaigners have a clear lead. The correlation between hostility to immigration and support for Brexit is high, so if they can turn the vote into one about migration, they will win.”
Meanwhile, its economic or fiduciary arguments are often total baloney. For example, the Vote Leave campaign supported by leading Conservatives such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove and given free publicity in the Sun and The Telegraph, claims that Britain would save £350 million per week to spend on the NHS if it left the EU, questioned here by this BBC article. As the UK statistics authority points out, this figure is based on the total remittance made by the UK to the EU before the rebate. It also crudely ignores all the arguments about the economic consequences of Brexit.
One persistent theme of the pro-Brexit media is that the state broadcaster, the BBC, is biased against them, again, reported in The Sun.
This is not to say there aren’t legitimate complaints about the media on the Bremain side. Brexiters aren’t the only ones fearmongering. Project Fear is real, and there is some evidence that it is starting to work.
There are two key arguments Project Fear have in this context: the first is that a Brexit would leave Britain more insecure, and the second is that it would leave the British economy in dire straits. As The Economist pithily put it, Brexit
“would uncouple the world’s fifth-largest economy from its biggest market, and unmoor the fifth-largest defence spender from its allies.”
In terms of “‘insecurity,” sometimes politicians are explicit about the stakes. The former Liberal Democrats leader, Nick Clegg, for example, explicitly and cynically taps into a postcolonial nation’s castration anxiety when he is reported in The Independent as suggesting that outside the EU Britain might have to truly adapt to having no empire.
“We will be left with no empire, no union and no special relationship. We will never have been so alone. Never so isolated. Never so powerless.”
Those keeping a scorecard of Project Fear ‘bullshit bingo,’ meanwhile, have been gratified by the inevitable fearmongering about terrorism and overseas villains, as former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell has warned in The Guardian “Brexit plays into the hands of the Islamic State”. He was joined in this claim by defence secretary Michael Fallon, who, the Australian reported, said that Brexit “would only be good news in Raqqa and Moscow”. Hugo Dixon of The Guardian added: “The only major global figure who would rub his hands is Vladimir Putin.”
Even the fiercely eurosceptic Express newspaper relayed claims from British spooks that Islamic State group was deeply concerned with the referendum outcome, and “may even attempt a terror attack on U.K. soil to force along a break from the EU as they regard Britain leaving the union as the beginning of the destruction of Europe.” Truly a case of the racist right being torn between two momentarily conflicting forms of bigotry.
Ironically, it was left to Ewen McAskill in pro-Remain Guardian to pour cold water on security scaremongering. In response to claims from the Conservative front bench that Brexit would weaken intelligence-gathering about terrorism, he points out that such intelligence-gathering as exists is “extremely poor” and that at any rate UK intelligence is primarily linked to partners in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
The economic side of the argument is more plausible, but largely because it is based on the unknown. The Treasury, for example, is mobilising orthodox thinking about trade to support the government’s case for staying in the EU.
As the FT reports, the government claims that withdrawal from the EU will result in “a 9-24 percent fall in trade volumes”, while growth would decline 6 percent according to George Osborne.
That, of course, is catastrophizing, and it rests on the idea that the only route to growth is through neoliberal trade pacts. The problem is that the pro-Brexit opposition do have a formula for growth, and it is based on the most hyper-Atlanticist, deregulated model of capitalism.
“Brexit would demonstrate, for the first time in the post-1945 era, that EU integration can go into reverse as well as forward. It would boost anti-establishment, anti-EU forces across the continent.”
This is far more plausible than the claims that ISIS will gain from Brexit, and arguably points to the real fear of European elites.
Asa Bennett, writing for the Telegraph, complains that “fear” is the tool of the ‘in’ camp — “and it’s working.” He points to survey evidence showing that a plurality of voters think Brexit would leave the British economy “worse off” and prices would go up. In truth, it was always quite likely that the fear of the economic consequences of Brexit would result in a majority vote to remain – most Britons may be Eurosceptic, but that doesn’t necessarily entail leaving.
Occasionally, however, there is a tone-deafness in Project Fear that explains why a hopelessly incompetent, bigoted, fractious Brexit camp has been able to stay in the game at all.
The Financial Times, for instance, recently carried interview with the U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman. The trade representative is a relatively anonymous but extremely powerful organiser of America’s ‘free trade empire’. And in this interview, he claims that the threat of Brexit is “undermining the prospects of a new transatlantic pact,” referring to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
It doesn’t seem to occur to either the FT or Mike Froman that this sort of undemocratic pact, negotiated in secret and imposed without democratic consultation, is precisely the sort of behaviour on the part of the EU that has led to people wanting to withdraw.
Britain 2016. All the options are bad. All the campaigns are run by manipulative charlatans. Not a single media outlet gives us a realistic evaluation of what ‘in’ or ‘out’ really means. Instead, we get a debate between two wings of the right, and two models of neoliberal capitalism, both of whom rely on fear and bigotry to win. And you can’t vote for “none of the above.”