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.