Wednesday 10 June 2015

Little Englanders: right again?

During the last referendum campaign in the UK, in which we in England were denied a vote, did you ever hear the advocates of Scottish independence derided as “little Scotlanders”?

No, me neither. Yet we will surely hear a lot in the months ahead about how “little Englanders” threaten our future prosperity and security by advocating British withdrawal from the European Union.

How did Scottish independence come to be marketed and widely accepted as a progressive aspiration, and British independence as an entirely reactionary one?

It clearly represents a failure of leadership and communication by those tending towards the “no” camp before the referendum starting gun is fired.

And I fear that this failure is all too likely to continue if the loudest voice in the “no” campaign is that of Nigel Farage.

UKIP is brilliantly typecast to play the role of Labour’s “loony left” in the referendum of 1975, convincing moderate voters that if they are on one side it would be better to be on the other.

Nigel Farage with pint, 2015
Tony Benn with pipe, 1975

How easy it will be to characterise the advocates of independence as backward-looking, fearful xenophobes, and the EU’s supporters as optimistic representatives of the future.

Which is ironic, given that little could be further from the truth. The EU is a sclerotic 20th century creation, fixated on building a single nation called Europe.

They didn’t invent the euro to make our continent richer, but to drive it towards their obsessive political goal of “ever closer union”.

The current shenanigans with Greece are duly demonstrating that you cannot have a single currency without a single treasury and tax system, just as they were designed to do.

Fear will be the “yes” campaign’s weapon of choice in this referendum, just as it was the main asset of the “no” camp in Scotland.

Not sure about the chains imagery, to be honest

Prepare to hear much about the four million jobs at risk, regional development funding that will be lost, new trade barriers erected, a fatal loss of influence and dangerous isolation in the world.

All of which is cobblers, since the rest of the EU sells more to us than we do to them, and the funding they so generously dish out is but a fraction of the money we pay to them in the first place for the privilege of membership.

The “we will have to obey them anyway so we must have a seat at the table when they are drawn up” argument about EU rules and regulations does not stack up because there is ample evidence that our influence is already minimal.

We have to comply with US regulations to sell to America, and Chinese regulations to sell to China, and I don’t recall anyone arguing that our non-participation in devising them is a fatal barrier to trade there.

Throughout my lifetime we have been beset by the belief that Britain is in terminal decline and that we need to cling to the skirts of nanny EU for fear of something worse.

It is high time we took stock of our many advantages as the world’s fifth largest economy and the home of its most widely spoken language and premier financial centre.

We have some of the world’s finest universities and a track record of innovation in science, technology and culture that is simply second to none.

Why on earth do you think that so many immigrants from the EU and elsewhere are desperate to be here?

Our many natural advantages mean that we are uniquely well placed to forge new trade links with the faster growing world outside the EU, and to become a more optimistic, confident and successful country than we have been at least since the end of the Second World War.

Unlike this newspaper and the Prime Minister, I have not absolutely made up my mind which way I shall vote, but my inclinations are clear and they are solidly based on hope, not fear.

If anyone dares to call me a “little Englander” I shall politely point out that this was mainly used as a term of abuse against those who opposed the Boer War to expand the British Empire in South Africa.

So from the viewpoint of any self-respecting modern liberal, weren’t the little Englanders absolutely right?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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