“Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson
When around one year ago in an attempt to appease the Europhobes of the Conservative Party, Prime Minister David Cameron promised to hold a national referendum on the issue, his greatest blunder was to have underestimated the adage so well-known to politicians that “one week is a long time in politics.”
Whatever the outcome of the exercise, the future of his prime ministership has surely been hugely compromised. A “Brexit” win would almost certainly be followed by an immediate resignation for having failed to convince the people of Britain to support his “camp” in the referendum.
Given the circumstances under which the referendum is taking place, forcing Cameron to adopt a no-holds-barred commitment in the campaign, even a “remain” vote, while a success in the short term would nonetheless result in a drastic weakening of his leverage with Brussels in any future negotiations.
One could not have a clearer illustration of a “head I lose, tail you win” situation. When David Cameron “bravely” announced his decision he could scarcely have imagined that Europe would be facing the current dramatic challenges of the “immigration crisis” with millions of people fleeing the ravages of war in their respective countries knocking at the door of Europe and the United Kingdom for refuge.
At the time the referendum stratagem was decided regarding the issue of the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union, matters seemed so deceptively simple. Admittedly there has always been considerable cause for dissatisfaction among the British, including those who would eventually choose to stay in the Union when it comes to the crunch, regarding mostly the intrusive regulatory regime of the EU which is assimilated by the Europhobes with partial cession of national sovereignty.
The “unrepresentative” and non-accountable nature of the European Commission, the decision-making body sitting in Brussels, was also intuitively alien to the British democratic tradition. The mainstream conservative tradition, however, still militated for continued membership principally because of the many advantages which accrued to “big business” as well as the need to preserve the dominant role of the famous “square mile” — the financial district of London — as a major global financial centre.
In terms of the bigger picture, conservative instincts would favour the more open market and business friendly dispositions of the single market including the free movement of factors of production inscribed in the very foundations of the European Union. Cameron and his advisors were convinced at the time of opting for a referendum that the overall economic benefits of continued integration and its favourable effects on employment and productivity would in the end outweigh all the other considerations.
Under this scenario a referendum won by the “remain” vote but with a substantial vote against would conceivably have played into the hands of those who want to stay in but negotiate for “improved terms” for the United Kingdom – the likes of David Cameron.
The present refugee crisis, which is dominating the campaign, has dwarfed the economic benefits discourse in favour of a rising “anti-immigration” sentiment not so subtly exploited by the opponents of EU membership. The populist, xenophobic and often racist undertones of those campaigning for Brexit, has completely derailed the initial plans of those who had initially imagined the “soft” scenario of the referendum strategy and brought about a radically new situation which is totally uncalled for.
The assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox, which has shocked the world and the people of Britain, will hopefully instil some sanity in the campaign as the reasons invoked by Minister of State Baroness Sayeeda Warsi to explain her defection from the Brexit to the Remain camp seems to indicate. The only good news is that the bookies are overwhelmingly predicting a victory for the Remain vote…
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In Memoriam: Jo Cox, Assassinated Labour MP in the UK
The assassination of the young, progressive and promising Labour MP Jo Cox has been an extreme and shocking illustration of the effects of the populist politics which is emerging as a common feature in many mature democracies over the past few years. Unfortunately there is little chance that it would constitute a real wake-up call for those presently wielding the power of decision.
In France with Marine Le Pen, with Donald Trump in the United States, but also less known but as pernicious in other “developed” countries such as Germany and Austria or the UKIP for that matter in Britain the dark forces of extreme right parties are gaining ground.
The distinctive and primary trait of populism is that it is manipulative. Its leaders herald simplistic messages aimed at playing on the irrational fears of their eventual victims by appealing to emotions and sentiments rather than reason and thinking. They use propaganda rather than arguments to convince their followers.
Many surveys have established that their eventual followers come mostly from the blue-collar workers and the disenfranchised middle classes. Unsurprisingly they are those who have become the losers and feel most vulnerable in the face of globalization over the past decades.
Add to this the corruption of governments and their increasing subordination to big business interests and we have the ideal hunting ground for the demagogues of all hues with their readymade solutions for comforting those sections of the population – erecting a wall for preserving the national identity and culture, kicking out all foreigners in order to maintain employment for the locals.
As suggested above, there is little likelihood that the untimely death of JO Cox will have any lasting effect on the traditional parties which wield power in most of the mature democracies. In fact, faced with the overwhelming populist assault, most of the social-democratic parties have been fast abandoning any pretence to put up an alternative response to the critical social and economic problems of their respective countries. Instead they have taken to parroting the same policies of austerity and cuts in public spending which only serve to fuel the emergence of right-wing populism.
* Published in print edition on 24 June 2016