Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

Beating the EU Bogeyman

When a child tells us they can’t sleep because they are afraid of the bogeyman, it is tempting to hear “blah blah blah bogeyman” and launch into a long explanation about how the bogeyman isn’t real. This, of course, accomplishes nothing, because what we really need to hear is “I’m afraid”: afraid of the terror of my nightmares, afraid of the wild animals which might lurk in the darkness at the end of the bed, afraid that when I wake up, you won’t be here. Only when we hear this, and take it seriously, can we make the bogeyman disappear.

The debate on EU membership has focused on three issues: cost, immigration, and sovereignty. For remainers, these are non-issues: the cost is just a membership fee for a club which brings many benefits; immigration is a way to add human capital to an economy which isn’t always successful at producing it locally; and there are sufficient constitutional safeguards in place to mean we still have effective control of our own laws. The assumption, then, is that leavers just don’t understand the facts (a view reinforced by the distortion of facts by leave leaders) and that if things were just explained properly, leavers would change their minds. The bogeyman isn’t real.

This, of course, accomplishes nothing. What we need to hear in “I’m afraid of immigration” is not “blah blah blah immigration” but, of course, “I’m afraid.” Afraid I will lose my job or remain unemployed; that my children will spend their lives chasing one zero-hour contract after another; afraid that the world is becoming a place I don’t understand, and cannot navigate; afraid that the people who make the laws that govern me don’t know what matters to me, don’t have my interests at heart, and hide behind so much bureaucracy that I have no way to hold them to account.

These fears are quite understandable. While levels of employment are high, the terms of employment are, for many people, increasingly unfavourable: Mike Ashley is the tip of the iceberg in a world where people who rely on tips to make ends meet see their employers take a cut out of them. Equality legislation has created a fairer society but an unfamiliar one (even though I’ve been campaigning for LGBT rights since my teens, I still get disorientated when my gay friends talk about their children). Technology has connected people in new ways, but by that very process has created new modes of exclusion. The right’s inability to distinguish racism from nationalism has made us queasy at the thought of taking pride a national identity, and the papers read by the people who run the country spend a lot of time extolling the virtues of living in another one.

This isn’t to say that every leaver is motivated by ill-targeted anxiety; there are those for whom there are clear and well-reasoned arguments for leaving, but they are not typical. The success of UKIP at the last election should have made it clear that there was a significant proportion of the population whose concerns were not being addressed by the mainstream parties. The mainstream parties – giddy with an unanticipated success on one side, torn apart by the reality of defeat on the other – ignored this. Thinking of Farage as a rabble-rouser implicitly characterises his supporters as rabble: people, perhaps, to be brought around by a superior rhetoric (the bogeyman isn’t real) but not people whose needs, and values, and fears had to be taken seriously. Not merely an oversight, but an arrogant one, and one for which the country may pay the price in a few days.

It is hard to know how these fears may be put to rest, but in the time that remains between now and the referendum, there is perhaps the chance to listen to them, not at the institutional level, to be sure, but at the personal one. There is a slim opportunity for remainers to reach out to the leavers they know and try at least to take them seriously, not in blaming the EU for their worries, but in what those worries really are, and what can really be done about them. The bogeyman may or may not be real, but the anxiety is both real and well-founded, and we owe it to our future to take it seriously.

 

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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