More people become eurosceptic with time and experience than come to love the EU. That should tell us a lot about who to listen to in this EU referendum debate
In his Telegraph column today, Charles Moore considers the soft bigotry of the “swivel-eyed moderates” who instinctively support the Remain campaign for Britain to stay in the European Union without even considering the opposing arguments.
I do not mean that they do not know a lot about the subject – many of them do. Nor that they are not genuinely concerned for Britain’s future – most of them are. I mean that most have not, for one single second, imagined that life outside the EU might be a viable, even preferable alternative to life within it, so they do not understand the case they are opposing.
This is a form of bigotry, and it is less common on the Leave side – not because the Outers are necessarily deeper people, but because they have lived under the dominance of the pro-EU order, and so have been forced to think hard about it.
The bigotry of successful people is stronger than that of uneducated ones, because their life stories tell them they know best. So they stop thinking and instead merely disdain those who disagree with them. Years ago, Mr Cameron famously derided Ukip as “swivel-eyed loons”. Such people exist, perhaps, but the present danger is much more from the swivel-eyed moderates, who so resolutely refuse to look at the way the world is going.
They also do not see how much they have failed. In the 21st century, the world order and financial systems dominated by the free West have been shaken more profoundly than at any time since 1945, and the people in charge do not know how to correct their own errors, or even admit them. The euro is a major part of this new world disorder, as is the effort to deepen the European Union in the wake of it.
There is a lot of truth in this argument.
Certainly everyone of my age (33) has grown up knowing nothing other than life inside an explicitly political European Union, with many of the same institutions – the Parliament, the Council – which exist today. Unlike those who voted to leave the European Community in 1975, people my age have no recollection of life in a sovereign country, and so have no frame of reference when considering Brexit. No wonder, then, that to many young people the thought of leaving something so seemingly rooted and permanent as the EU (though of course it is nothing of the kind) seems to be crazy.
There is much truth, too, in Charles Moore’s assertion that those of a pro-EU dispensation – particularly the wealthier professional and establishment types who tend to support the EU the strongest – have not been forced to think hard about the question. This is not a criticism of such people, for in many ways it is inevitable.
If you have grown up and prospered under the status quo, with Britain as a vassal state of a larger and ever-more tightly integrating political union, then it takes an extraordinary amount of curiosity, empathy or insight to come to any conclusion other than that the EU has been a resounding success on all counts. By contrast, if you are self-employed or work in a semi-skilled or unskilled job at the sharp end of globalisation, you are more likely to be negatively impacted not just by immigration, but by the inability of your vote to effect any kind of meaningful political change in Britain thanks to the cross-party pro-EU consensus.
As this blog recently noted when discussing the Christian case against the EU:
Too often – at least in Britain, with the media’s patronising and dismissive coverage of UKIP leading up to the European and general elections – we explain away these populist movements, or belittle their support base by suggesting that they are all economically left-behind losers or curtain-twitching village racists.
And it’s partly true, only not as an insult. If you are a well paid professional in rude financial health you can better afford to be a consumer rather than a thinking citizen. You can use your vote to signal your virtue (anyone but UKIP!) or advance your lazily thought out utopian daydreams, with little fear of the consequences. But those of our fellow citizens on the sharp edge of globalisation – those whose livelihoods are impacted by deindustrialisation, new technology, outsourcing and the information economy – tend to see things differently.
This doesn’t mean that we should adopt every nativist, protectionist policy that comes along – because barriers to trade are never the right answer. But it does mean that we should acknowledge that the eurosceptic parties of the Right and the Left are at least asking some important questions that the mainstream parties, trapped in their centrist consensus groupthink, have consistently failed to do.
I feel particularly qualified to talk about this, as growing up I was the most ardent European Union supporter and federalist imaginable. And not in an ignorant way – I had done the reading and acquainted myself with how the EU was structured and how it worked. I firmly believed that the age of the nation state was over, that patriotism was silly and gauche, and that our only hope of a prosperous future lay in dissolving ourselves into a greater European collective. Adopting the euro, creating an EU army – you name it, I believed in it.
I would look enviously across the Atlantic at the power and influence of the United States and, coveting the same, agitate for the European Union become an equally powerful actor on the world stage. Britain seemed small, parochial and redolent of the past. Surely, I thought, our future lies as part of something greater?
And I persisted in this belief for some time, the arrogance of youth helping me to dismiss friends, family, experts and the vast majority of the general public who thought differently to me as being xenophobic Little Englanders who just didn’t know what was good for them.
Only when my appreciation for democracy and self-determination (and small-c conservatism) caught up with my authoritarian Utopianism did I realise that the accumulated wisdom of the British people might exceed my own, and that there may be good reasons to be sceptical of the European Union. And only when I came to realise the extent to which the EU is a creation of a small group of European intellectuals and political elites who thought that they knew best – and that the only way to bring about their creation was through stealth and subterfuge, never declaring the ultimate federal destination of travel – did I come to see how profoundly wrong it is.
The point is that I have been on a political journey. I held one set of beliefs and looked to one limited set of facts, and then I questioned those ideas, drew on a wider array of evidence and renounced my previous positions. As Charles Moore would put it, I grew up under the dominance of the pro-EU order, but then thought hard about it and changed my mind.
The pro-EU Remain campaign boasts very few people who have been on a similar journey but in reverse; who were once ardent eurosceptics but came to see the light and learn to love enforced European political union. And that’s because the pro-EU consensus is nothing but a haven for establishment groupthink and bias confirmation. Newcomers to the pro-EU cause such as the Conservative Party’s Sajid Javid and Rob Halfon have not been on an intellectual journey, but merely fell into line behind their party leadership. That’s what makes their “coming out” arguments so desperately unconvincing.
The uncomfortable truth for the pro-EU crowd and the Remain campaign is this: the more you learn about the European Union, its history, the way it came about and its ultimate direction of travel, the more likely you are to oppose it and want Britain to leave. When ignorance prevails and people believe that the EU is nothing more than a friendly club of countries trading and co-operating with one another to Save the Earth, the europhiles win. But when the drip-drip of facts and evidence begins to permeate the debate, people start questioning those pro-EU shibboleths and opposing our continued participation in this mid-century supra-national experiment.
Furthermore, it is those who think primarily with their wallets, as consumers first and foremost, who are most likely to be susceptible to the Remain campaign’s Project Fear and scaremongering tactics about the hysterically hyped “costs” of leaving the European Union, while those who think as engaged citizens and global stakeholders who are most likely to question the European project.
Charles Moore is quite right: there is indeed an army of swivel-eyed ideologues in this EU referendum debate. And though they would hate to admit it, it is those on the Remain side who are most likely to be impermeable to facts, and who are least likely to have ever held a different view on the EU and been on an intellectual journey to arrive at their present position.
And as a rule of thumb, it is generally wisest to listen to those who can show evidence of having thought deeply about an issue and been persuaded by the steady accumulation of evidence to revise their thinking, rather than those who were born with their deeply-engrained love of the European Union pre-programmed in their brains.
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