Sunday, 6 January 2013

Leaving the EU isn't about standing up for Britain. It is about pushing Britain to the right


Here's a thought experiment:

Imagine if the centre of gravity of continental European politics wasn't situated to the left of ours? Instead of moderate centre-right parties (such as the Christian Democratic Union in Germany) competing with social democratic parties on the left for power, there would be right-wing free-market parties like the UK Tory Party dominating the landscape.

In this situation there would be fundamental difference with the policies of the European Union. Instead of a body producing a range of centrist and in some cases centre-left regulations - particularly around the environment  worker's rights and social protections - mixed with some centre-right policies, the EU would instead be a relentless deregulator and privatiser. It would seek to slash taxes, to remove social and environmental protections and thus remove the 'barries to wealth' that the right so often characterises these vital features of a civilised society.

In that situation, would Tory backbenchers and wealthy newspaper owners complain so bitterly about the EU? Would they campaign ad nauseum on the matter, even when every opinion poll says that the EU isn't anywhere near at the top of ordinary people's lists of concerns - not even for UKIP voters?

Of course not.

'Patriotism'

The problem those on the left have - and not just pro-Europeans - is that the right have been so successful at framing their arguments as being patriotic, particularly when it comes to Europe.

The has two profound benefits for the Conservatives. First, it allows them to harness at least some of the power of those voters that will mark a ballot for the party that they see as patriotic - in some cases voters that may be tempted to vote for more radical nationalist parties. Secondly, and more importantly, it allows right-wing parties to frame their opposition to policies created by the EU that they oppose on ideological grounds (improving parental leave rights, regulating food or medicine manufacturers, protecting natural habitats) as 'standing up for Britain'. They therefore manage to frame attacks on workers protections or social protections as being in the interests of the nation.

And it's a successful strategy, in part because polls have demonstrated that although the EU isn't an important issue to most British people, a policy that may be popular when named in isolation is seen in less favourable terms when associated with the EU. By framing opposition to these matters in patriotic terms allows the Tories to avoid admitting that their opposition is to the policies themselves.

There is a linguistic element here - that could be addressed in a completely different post- that demonstrates further the success of the right in framing their arguments. Ask someone, for example, if they think that 'red tape' is a good thing, and they'll invariably say no. However, explain that 'red tape' could be the law that stops their local factory pouring toxic chemicals into their drinking water, or the rules that prevent other people parking their cars right in front of their driveway, and they'll most likely express a different opinion.

Ideology

The most depressing aspect of the success the Tories and their allies in the media have had in taking this line is that, on the whole, the modern neo-liberal right actually care little for British sovereignty, or British traditions. Witness their silence as iconic UK companies are taken over by foreign corporations. The Conservative Party of the mid-twentieth century arguably had an ideological tendency to preserve and protect, however misguidedly, their traditional view of Britain. However the takeover of the right from the 1980s onwards by the neo-liberals has created a different kind of Tory politics: one, like its more radical cousin in America, that seeks to gut the state at all costs and regardless of consequences for those that suffer as a result.

On both sides of the Atlantic, this ideology is increasingly quasi-religious in its ruthless opposition to anything that is seen as standing in opposition to an unfettered free market. Nothing, not universally accessible healthcare or national culture - takes precedence over the aim to deregulate.

Take the BBC. It is loathed by many on the right with an antipathy that is baffling to many. Not least the British public, which, despite recent troubles for the organisation, still sees it as by far the most trusted source of news. This is reflected in market research showing it is the most used news source on the internet by UK users. In terms of its cultural impact, it is huge, spending by far the highest proportion of money on original British content than any other broadcaster, whether on radio or TV.

Globally its importance to the UK is equally significant. It is the world's largest international broadcaster, with 44 foreign news bureaux. Its Global News division, including the World Service and BBC News, has a regular audience of over 230 million, making waves in even the smallest US towns. Services such BBC Monitoring are used by foreign news broadcasters across the world to support their output. Global polls show it is seen as the most trusted and objective news source.

Beyond news, its cultural impact is significant, with BBC comedies and dramas exported across Europe;  its documentaries, not least its world-renowned natural history unit, are known the world over. Its reach is extended through both BBC channels overseas and export deals to foreign broadcasters. From David Brent and Alan Partridge to David Attenborough and Brian Cox, its characters and presenters are recognised across the world.

In other words, the British Broadcasting Corporation does a huge job in increasing the soft power of the UK. It is popular and trusted across the globe. It does a better job at projecting British culture overseas than the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Any political movement concerned with British sovereignty or culture would therefore seek to promote and protect such a unique organisation. But as the BBC commits the sin of being publicly-funded, the modern 'patriotic' right seeks to do the opposite - to destroy it. Better for them a US-dominated global news landscape and a dearth of UK-made programmes at home than the continued existence of an organisation that challenges their fundamentalist free-market worldview.

The simple fact is that when it comes down to a choice between protecting British culture and promoting the image of Britain overseas, or adhering to their economic ideology, the latter will always come out on top in today's Conservative Party.


Leaving the EU, then, isn't about standing up for Britain. It is about pushing Britain to the right. It is about removing the protections and regulations that, for millions, make their lives better, but for a minority at the very top, are seen as an inconvenience - a barrier to increasing their wealth yet further. To allow the Tory Party - and UKIP - to frame this debate in any other terms lets them pull of one of the greatest con tricks in modern politics.

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