Harmful Eccentrics

Peter Pomerantsev

Brexiteers like to frame Europe’s relationship to the UK as one of empire to colonial subject, as if the campaign to leave the EU were equivalent to some sort of glorious war of decolonisation. Of all the referendum debate’s many absurd arguments, this – presenting Boris Johnson as the reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi – may be the most absurd: especially coming from a country that used to have a real empire and really ought to know the difference. But maybe that’s the point.

British unease at criticising immigration, Brexiteers say, is predicated on a fear of being labelled racist. That in turn is informed by a sense of colonial guilt. If Britain is thought of as a colony, however, then the guilt disappears, the unease is lifted, immigration can be more easily complained about, xenophobia is less taboo – and the leave campaign benefits.

As much as anything, the referendum is a tussle over English (not British) identity. Each side is trying to capture the essence of Englishness better than the other. The tone is the real battleground. The leave campaign defines Englishness as eccentricity. Johnson, Gove and Farage all come across as characters out of Ealing comedy, if not Monty Python. Brexit – even that terrible portmanteau word is part of it – is the quirky thing to do, worth it just to see the look on the Germans’ faces. There’s always been a self-destructive streak to eccentricity – just think of Basil Fawlty.

The remain camp, meanwhile, position themselves as representatives of English common sense, with a sprinkling of head boy responsibility for Europe’s future. Leaving the EU, they say, just isn’t prudent. But eccentricity often trumps common sense (remember Boaty McBoatface). The challenge for remain is to find a more powerful message to rival leave’s ‘decolonisation’ and constant exhortations to ‘take things back’: our democracy, our borders, our ethnicity.

Maybe the best remain can do is play up to a self-regarding reputation for canniness. Britain isn’t really ‘in’ the EU: it’s half-in, half-out, creaming the single market but avoiding the euro. In a globalised world, you win by cleverly playing the fluctuating lines of interdependence. The Brexiteers, you could argue, are so ideological it just isn’t English. In fact, they’re really quite ‘European’ – or what the English think of as European – in their search for absolute solutions.

Both campaigns spend a lot of time pointing out how manipulative the other side is being. Leave accuses remain of scaring people into voting for the EU; remain accuses leave of flogging the snake oil of a ‘free Britain’ when the reality will be grim. Both sides position themselves as the people’s friend, helping to unmask the others’ nasty spin doctors. These ‘anti-PR’ PR games are what you get when you avoid the real questions: the battle is fought not by making the better arguments but by making people feel good about themselves and bad about the other side.

Maybe it’s because I’m an immigrant, but I’d rather the eccentric games were dropped in favour of a responsible debate over what’s really bothering people. I suppose that just wouldn’t be very English.


  • 8 June 2016 at 5:52pm
    davidnoelgardner says:
    "what’s really bothering people"?
    Non governance within the EU and within Britain,
    killer chaos on the continent with Merkel and Germany playing merciless havoc with the poorer nations while enriching their balance of payments and banks, and smashing once again security, public safety, democracy and sovereignty altogether in the EU, as the other EU nations including Britain and ameron in particular remain weak and unable to effect any change on what Merkel diktats,
    and the tragic failure of democracy in Britain in the ever firmer claw from the enclaves of Labour and Conservative elitists who once again have spread a tight net of regressive regime of elitist hold on housing, the cost of food, schools, university and all further education, entrenched poverty, the abandonment of the seriously ill, disabled, unemployed and ever rising homeless and the undeniable tragic loss of humanity and egalitarian enlightenment itself in this failed democracy now functioning as a rich person's playground and off shore tax haven while most are truly voiceless and disenfranchised.

    • 9 June 2016 at 12:29pm
      Greencoat says: @ davidnoelgardner
      My, that is a very long-winded way of saying 'mass immigration'.

    • 11 June 2016 at 11:37am
      gary morgan says: @ davidnoelgardner
      "...killer chaos...merciless havoc...smashing once again....Merkel's diktats....tragic failure of democracy...ever firmer claw....the enclaves...tight net of regressive regimes of elist hold.....entrenched person's playground...."

      I don't disagree with all you say David and wish the national debate had addressed such matters honestly. But this post displays an intemperate attitude to what are indeed real problems in our polity. Our voting system badly needs reform, immigration needs honest discussion, housing needs to be made a priority (Os's Help to buy part of problem). I have been amazed how little Thatcher has been unmentioned as the signer-in of us into EU, beyond the EC. Then again, knock-down arguments have been too prevalent anyway.
      If Exit is the answer it's a pretty silly question; a real debate would look at our role in Europe and the extent to which 'we' decided to adopt neoliberalism, a disaster that's brilliant if you're rich.
      Best wishes, Gary

    • 12 June 2016 at 8:54pm
      patrick hutchinson says: @ gary morgan

  • 8 June 2016 at 7:33pm
    Neil Foxlee says:
    No disrespect - I sympathize with much of what you say - but do you seriously think that Boris, Farage, Gove, Duncan-Smith, Grayling et al. are the sort of people to lead us to the sunlit uplands of socialism? (Yes, I know, Cameron, Osborne et al. aren't either, and that's the real problem. A plague on both their houses.)

    • 9 June 2016 at 12:31pm
      Greencoat says: @ Neil Foxlee
      'the sunlit uplands of socialism' - is that where chocolate rivers flow and unicorns gamble on the golden hillsides?

    • 9 June 2016 at 1:20pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Greencoat
      It's 'gambol'...

    • 9 June 2016 at 1:22pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Alan Benfield
      Mind you, the image of unicorns bluffing away over a hand of five-card stud does have its attractions...

    • 9 June 2016 at 2:32pm
      Neil Foxlee says: @ Greencoat
      Was my irony so difficult to detect?

    • 9 June 2016 at 7:15pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Neil Foxlee
      Well, Neil, the guy can't tell his 'gamble' from his 'gambol'...

      Wash my mouth out with soap and water for being such a stickler for spelling.

    • 11 June 2016 at 11:38am
      gary morgan says: @ Alan Benfield
      The image of them gamble is revealing and, in fact, charming. Sort of Winnie-the-Pooh-ish.

  • 8 June 2016 at 8:42pm
    Mona Williams says:
    Many in the U.S. are bothered by the same problems davidnoelgardner lists near the end of his post, and many of those people hope the solution will be a President Trump. I disagree, but I understand their frustration. When the situation has become this desperate, no one should be surprised that desperate measures are being sought.

  • 9 June 2016 at 8:54am
    Alan Benfield says:
    While I tend to agree with most of the points David makes above, perhaps it's worthwhile to see how we got into this mess in the first place. It's largely a question of a lack of union (or perhaps I should say Union), rather than too much of it.

    Europe's position at present is rather reminiscent of the United States in the late 18th century, with a weak federalism and strong states rights. At that time, the Federalists put forward the thesis that a strong central government was needed to balance the parochial nature of the views of the individual states. As James Madison put it: "one could hardly expect the state legislatures to take enlightened views on national affairs".

    This is the situation in Europe now: a lack of Federalism has led to the agenda of the EU being dominated by the parochial views of states. Paradoxically, while national politicians can often be heard whining about EU domination and interference, the problems we face are largely generated by the national governments themselves. The economic dominance of Germany means that Germany dominates the Union politically and seems largely to dictate what happens, a (rather large) German tail wagging the EU dog.

    This is not to blame Germany for the ills of the Union, merely to point out that while people like to pretend that the Commission runs Europe, power in the Union is still in the hands of the Council, which is composed of representatives of national governments. While the Parliament continues to grow in strength, it is very weak compared to national legislatures (but is the only genuinely democratic part of the structure). It is also the case that, while some politicians may pretend to serve the European interest, their motives are often nationalistic: the Greek debt crisis being a typical example. What began as a problem between a nation and its bankers escalated into a conflict between the EU (but read: Germany) and Greece purely because of Merkel and Schäuble's protection of German banks.

    People also forget that the strength of America's Union and its single currency derives from the fact that the Federal Government, while largely appearing to leave states to manage their own finances, is also responsible for unseen fiscal transfers and federal support which allow such a large currency union to work without the tensions seen in the Eurozone.

    So, what we need in Europe is more, not less, federalism and this will only work if all states truly engage in the Union rather than being, as Jean-Claude Juncker has put it, full members when it comes to taking, but part members when it comes to giving.

    And the socialists among us should work towards reviving and extending the social legacy of Jacques Delors and ensuring the Social Chapter is implemented in full in all states. The residual part of that which survives in the UK will surely be swept away if Brexit occurs.

    • 9 June 2016 at 7:45pm
      Rusne says: @ Alan Benfield

    • 10 June 2016 at 1:48am
      lordarsenal says: @ Rusne
      Agree. The EU is weak, and would need a strong dose of Federalism to make this glourious idea work. Boris and his acolytes are complete fools; the very notion of sovereignty is hopelessly outdated, and any notion of leaving the EU will be met with buyer's remorse.

    • 12 June 2016 at 9:04pm
      patrick hutchinson says: @ Alan Benfield
      This is totally and brilliantly enlightened (and about 500 trillion light years, alas, away from your average Murdoch-intoxicated punter's brain...). Are bad education standards and lack of extensive knowledge of (and interest in enlightened opinions expressed in) foreign languages at last coming home to roost?

  • 9 June 2016 at 11:46am
    rolandino says:
    As much as anything, the referendum is a tussle over English (not British) identity

    I think that's how it could have been perceived once upon a time, but the genesis of the referendum (to try to both please right-wingers and silence them by having 'remain' win) means that that's not actually what's being asked.

    The implications are very long-term (e.g. long-term survival of the EU), but the real question being asked is relatively short-term: who do you actually want to run the UK (or England+Wales if Scotland leave) over next 5-10 years? Cameron and some successor, or Boris and His Gang?

    Given Boris+Co have people such as Grayling (boasted on R4 World-At-One about privatising probation service with zero evidence), IDS (facts and evidence are just irrelevant), and Gove ("UK is just tired of experts" - yup, lets have untrained family members teaching our kids), if you vote leave, you essentially vote to be run by what Jonathan Freedland termed "post-fact politicians". In other words, politicians for whom evidence, facts, reason, logic and much that we've established since the renaissance should be discarded.

    That's more than enough to make me vote remain.

    • 9 June 2016 at 2:33pm
      James Alexander says: @ rolandino
      A referendum "leave" makes Boris and co the Govt? For 5-10 yeras? Maybe, but its a sweeping enough assumption to come across as another "remain" scare story. And if right, then not that far different from what we have now. Even if it happens, there would be electoral processes involved which would mean that the English will have got what they want, and deserve. And if eventually a broken up UK gives England even more permanently right-wing government than it seems to face at present, that would then also reflect what the English want. Or a kicked-over applecart might at last bring the English to rethink their politics, parties and constitution, a consummation devoutly to be wished (says a Scot).

    • 10 June 2016 at 4:23pm
      Mickstick says: @ James Alexander
      To James Alexander: around 25% of the electorate voted Conservative in May 2015, so it's arguable that even the English don't wish for permanent extreme right-wing government.

    • 12 June 2016 at 9:07pm
      patrick hutchinson says: @ rolandino

  • 9 June 2016 at 10:52pm
    Mat Snow says:
    Don't opinion polls on current voting intentions reveal what might loosely be called a class bias, with haves tending to Bremain and have-nots tending to Brexit?

    If so, perhaps the key drivers of how we will decide this issue are perhaps a lot simpler and more straightforward than any calculations involving national identity or feelings about the higher profile personalities involved: perceived economic self-interest.

    • 10 June 2016 at 8:00am
      davidnoelgardner says: @ Mat Snow
      re Mat Snow. In mainland EU all, whatever their economic self-interest, have had Merkel in single utterances and mad diktats rob the entire citizenry in one fell swoop after another of their hard won peace and safety, their democracy and Treasuries and consensus on governance, with a continent now rife with hate and violence uncontrolled.
      It is abundantly clear as it was when Iraq was invaded that it will get much worse, with weak EU nations including the very weak and dishonest Cameron who is like the present day Chamberlain, in being to weak to prevent Merkel from license to wreck Europe further. This grab by Merkel and Germany have been a long time building up to the horrors of 2015.
      The focus in the British media on the "right" is just a bit part of the nightmare.
      Most who live on mainland EU say that war is now inevitable with the forces unleashed by Merkel that are unstopped by any EU national Government or EU mechanism, making the hard won democratic control of lives and peace and consensus of citizens in the EU now ungovernable and uncontrollable and their Treasuries and sovereign democratic rights and peace and economies and borders defunct.
      British voters can vote in the governance they wish.
      The present day Brexit leaders can and will be replaced if democracy can ever be functional in Britain again.

    • 10 June 2016 at 10:28am
      Sal Scilicet says: @ davidnoelgardner
      The OED defines Democracy as "a system of government in which all the people of a state or polity ... are involved in making decisions about its affairs, typically by voting to elect representatives to a parliament or similar assembly”.

      Merriam-Webster treats Democracy as "government by the people … rule of the majority; a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections."

      Political scientist Larry Diamond cites four key elements: (a) A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; (b) The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; (c) Protection of the human rights of all citizens, and (d) A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

      While the ancient Greeks famously invented dēmokratía – "rule of the people", as distinct from aristokratía – "rule of an elite", a cursory look at history reveals that in practice such cute distinctions have become “blurred”.

      The Athenians only granted democratic citizenship to an elite class of free men, excluding slaves and women. That applied nearly everywhere until full the vote was won for all adult citizens during the suffrage movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

      Meanwhile, today virtually every nominally “democratic” government incorporates elements of democracy, oligarchy and monarchy. [Wikipedia]

      Of course, “the people” is just a convenient social construct that cannot possibly represent millions of widely divergent constituents. Hence, “the voice of the people” is technically a blatant oxymoron. Sixty-four million Britons can’t have one voice.

      So here’s how it works in practice. “The people of Australia” long clamoured for a republic. So, to settle the question once and for all, The Right Honourable, The Prime Minister [Honest] John Howard [ardent monarchist and legally trained in sophistry, so he was] agreed to let “the people” have a referendum. But first he insisted on letting “the people” decide on the type of republic to put to the vote, by dint of a Constitutional Convention. At which Honest John not only participated but rose to preeminence. To make sure the right question would be put, you understand. Which, on the momentous day of the referendum, was “Do you really want this hopelessly unworkable type of a republic, yes or no?” [Care for this rotten banana, or would you rather no fruit at all?] So “the people of Australia” to a man and his dog obediently voted like the sheep the media had made of them, resoundingly rejected the republic. Once and for all. Democracy Australian style: “Give a bloke a fair go”.

      A bloke I know refused to vote. Would not answer an ambiguous question. He wanted a republic but not one that would not fly. So he failed to attend a polling booth, failed to have his name crossed off the Roll and failed to return a ballot. That’s illegal in Australia. Punishable by a hefty fine, in default jail time. In Australia democracy is compulsory. So he was summonsed to appear in Court. Prepared his own defence. It got so every Attorney General in Australia was alerted to a potential challenge to the Constitution. Far from it. Having heard all arguments for and against, the Magistrate patiently intoned to this abhorrently delinquent, conscientious object: “Mr …, the law merely requires you to attend a polling booth and return a ballot, in its pristine condition should you so desire. You are not actually required to express your precious opinion.” Case closed. Costs awarded, six thousand dollars.

      Australia was once famous as a penal colony. Now the convicts’ descendants, together with twenty million squabbling immigrants go surfing or sit around on the edge of a gigantic Chinese quarry. Who needs democracy where the sun shines?

  • 10 June 2016 at 4:21pm
    Mickstick says:
    Cameron called the referendum to deal with a schism in his party. There was no popular demand for it. If a majority votes to leave the EU he will be toast, replaced by Johnson, a liar, as PM. Senior ministers will invariably include Gove, Patel, Grayling, Duncan Smith, and, since UKIP will have lost its raison d'etre, very possibly, in time, Farage. Consequently thanks to Cameron's opportunism we face the very real possibility of an extreme right-wing putsch. Hurrah.

    • 12 June 2016 at 9:16pm
      patrick hutchinson says: @ Mickstick
      In a nutshell!

    • 14 June 2016 at 1:49pm says: @ Mickstick
      It sounds very possible in the event of Brexit, especially if nothing very much changes for several years under Prime Minister Boris. An opportunity for the people's champion Nigel to appeal to the disappointed and marginalised white working class. Things could get very nasty.

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