(Originally written 22 November 2014 but as relevant today as it was then.)
When I commented on the Scottish Referendum earlier this year, I said I couldn’t provide an academic opinion. That might seem like I was putting myself down a bit, but only in that I am aware of my standing. Politics is about people and their opinions, and with this in mind I want to provide a personal take on what Brexit will mean for citizens of the UK. Citizens whose interest populist figures claim to represent. The EU and our position within it must not be an issue for any one party, for the left and centralists to defend, it is an issue everyone needs to understand. History loves a scapegoat. The people love something to blame for their woes. And although looking back can teach us lessons about today, it is folly look back upon “better days” and presume we can somehow go it alone. The EU has become our scapegoat, and rash, divisive figures are whipping voters into a frenzy, asking them to be brave, be bold, and return Britain to its glorious days of Empire. Britain the superpower has gone, never to return. Yet, we are a superpower. We are Europe.
I’m writing this evening after the morning before- Mark Reckless, another Tory defector, has regained his seat in Rochester under the UKIP banner. Commentators have been quick to point out these are both seats where the original MP has changed sides. Even so, it is indicative of a desire for change. But at what cost? I don’t foresee a purple victory come May but no party can be complacent. This election will be tough to call (pollsters across the land are rubbing their hands with glee). There is no easy answer to the voter’s dissatisfaction.
I believe we are better united, not divided. I look for similarities in people, yet delight in our differences. I judge people by actions, not birthplace. I worry anti-European sentiment is driven by pure prejudice, not economic or social concern. It is interesting to me as a socialist and Europhile when I discuss the EU with my best friend and lifelong Tory, who is an independent florist. As a businesswoman she takes a keen interest in the UK’s future, and considered the Scottish Referendum damaging (a quarter Scot like me but nowhere near as romantic!). Women like her are being courted by shouty voices like UKIP, claiming jobs are under threat from immigration. That the EU is damaging her prospects. She lives in Tory heartland; her neighbouring constituency is Douglas Carswell’s. But she knows leaving the EU would destroy her business overnight. It’s an isolated example, but shows how integrated the UK market is with the rest of the UK. Her customers are all local but her suppliers are not. She buys flowers from Holland. With no knowing what customs and taxes between the EU and a breakway UK would be, she can only assume the worst. She can’t afford for Britain to take that chance. She can’t just pass on charges to her customers- larger retailers can play with profit margins but she can’t.
UKIP support is highest where immigration is low. East Anglia in general is showing a flush of support for “everyman Farage”, but they’re hardly “swamped by immigrants”. Whatever problems with regards to employment and income ensue, immigration is not their cause. We’re still feeling the effects of recession. Following the CBI conference , businesses sent out a strong signal that Brexit would harm the economy. From smaller businesses like my friend’s, to the big players, the message is clear- stop scaremongering. Leaving the EU is a fool’s gold solution- all sparkle no substance. British business was integral in keeping Britain together following the Scottish referendum, and they are making their feelings known again.
But if businesses are on board, why are the polls showing a surge of support for UKIP? We don’t yet know if this will result in more MPs for the purple party, but the indication is clear, to many ordinary voters the message of UKIP makes sense. For businesses to throw their weight behind the EU, the Stay Together campaign, is not surprising. Back in 2010 businesses were vocal in their support of a Conservative vote. If business is key to success at the ballot box, shouldn’t parties be singing the praises of the EU? The general public is tired of “mainstream”, “Westminster” politics, but perhaps it’ll listen to big business, big brands, social media, in getting the message across. Businesses must shout louder, or else be drowned out by the persuasive, intoxicating arguments presented by populist figures. Some, with a vested interest in politics will take time to find the facts, others will listen to the loudest, and most familiar voice.
The charge of those who back a progressive, united Europe now is to find a voice that speaks to people beyond the centre left, and speaks to the person on the street. UKIP have managed to engage a disengaged audience but with a message that is misinformed and dangerous. Regardless of their performance in next year’s election, their rhetoric will cause lasting damage to our place within the EU. The benefits of a Europe need to be spelled out clearly, illustrating how they work at an everyday, low level. The EU is a marketplace- and the fate of our place within it, lies with our British businesses. Shout louder.