The Democratic Delusion
Only a few days ago opinion polls showed a lead for the Leave side in the upcoming referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union. A growing cross-section of public opinion has been swung on key arguments on sovereignty and democracy so that the elected British parliament can regain control. From the outset the Remain side has had an inbuilt advantage as supporters of the status quo. They have practically the whole global establishment on their side. Everyone from Christine Lagarde at the IMF to President Obama as well as the most prominent economic research institutes supports the UK's continued membership of the EU. The leaderships of all the main parties represented in the British Parliament have also thrown their weight behind the Remain campaign. Even Labour's new leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longstanding opponent of EU expansionism and disciple of Tony Benn, came out in favour of the EU alongside the Greens, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and Scottish Nationalists. In the last general election only one major party, UKIP, stood clearly against EU membership. They may have gained 3.9 million votes, but only won one parliamentary seat. The referendum, it seemed, was a battle between the Tory Right, UKIP and a motley crew of mavericks from other parties versus everyone else, a clearcut fight between our interconnected global future and our insular past or between cosmopolitan universalism and reactionary nationalism. Yet to the astonishment of orthodox opinion leaders ordinary people no longer trust establishment experts or really care about nebulous concepts like economic growth (which just means a bigger GDP). People actually care about their country and social cohesion. Globalisation has largely benefited big corporations and the upwardly mobile professional classes to the detriment of the traditional native working classes.
The StrongerIn campaign has always emphasised Europe, something people associate with good cuisine, wine, beer, sunny holidays, fine art, literature, scientific excellence and a wonderful diversity of traditional cultural identities. How can we leave our European friends? Amazingly millions of ordinary working class voters are fully aware of the distinction between Europe and a superstate imposed on 28 of its countries. To confuse Europe with the EU is like mistaking Russia for the Soviet Union (although if you want to be pedantic at least the USSR comprised the whole of Russia, while the EU excludes European Russia).
Away from university campuses, corporate boardrooms and trendy international development agencies, most people still identify with their community, their home town, their region and their country much more than with hazy concepts such as Europe, increasingly indistinguishable from a broader universalism inspired by the American dream.
Real issue is not Europe at all, but unbalanced migratory flows
While the Remain crowd may have persuasive arguments on economics, the advantages of a common market and cooperation on environmental and security issues, they have always had one weakness in the eyes of many ordinary voters in England, Scotland and Wales, unbalanced migratory flows. To put things into perspective, in the 1970s approximately 100,000 moved to Britain every year, while a similar number left. Indeed in some years more left and entered. Net migration picked up in the 1980s, subsided slightly before growing gradually in the1990s along with global trends for greater labour mobility especially towards more prosperous countries. However, since 1998 net migration climbed steadily and has fluctuated between 200,000 and 330,000 since. The raw figures for 2015 show 630,000 moved to the UK for long term residence (counted as more than 12 months) and 297,000 went the other way. That's a phenomenal rate of demographic change if it continues over the next 15 years. See A summary history of immigration to Britain and Net Migration Statistics.
These crude statistics do not reflect the socio-cultural reality people experience in their everyday lives. If the quality of life keeps improving and communities retain some degree of continuity, immigration can, for want of a better word, enrich society. However, the sustainability of high levels of net migration over a long period of time depends not only on the quantity of newcomers, but also on their quality in terms of age, skills an cultural compatibility as well naturally as the host country's carrying capacity. Thus a large country like Australia can assimilate a greater number of immigrants every year than smaller and more densely populated European or Asian countries. What people perceive is how their community evolves, most important will their children have good opportunities to prosper or will they have to leave their community or fall into a trap of welfare dependence and/or job insecurity? Where you stand on Britain's great immigration debate is likely to depend on your sense of social and economic security as well as your regional identity. This explains why the greatest opposition to mass migration tends to come from outlying suburban areas of indigenous white working classes, although it is not uncommon among second or third generation descendants of Caribbean immigrants who have had to compete with newcomers from Eastern Europe at the lower end of labour market.
The biggest tragedy is a political class increasingly out of touch with ordinary people and only concerned with special interest groups who serve other agendas. If you inhabit a metropolitan elite bubble, you may believe corporate globalisation (a hackneyed term, but what else should we call it?) has benefited everyone except perhaps a few losers who keep moaning about immigrants taking their jobs. The truth is usually much more complex, mainly because of rapid technological change and ensuing job insecurity. The millions of manufacturing jobs that provided a livelihood for the working classes before the 1970s will not return. They have already been outsourced and/or automated. If young workers cannot adapt to the demands of a forever more dynamic service sector or a rapidly metamorphosing tech sector, they are likely to be condemned to a life of unrewarding temporary jobs and long periods of unemployment falling victim to all the scourges of modern society, such as depression, social anxiety and drug addiction. Youth unemployment in the UK is masked by the growth in further education, zero-hour contracts and part-time jobs. In Southern Europe youth unemployment now stands well above 40%. Many countries experience a kind of piggyback migration with waves of migrants from North Africa and Middle East arriving just as locals move to Northern Europe or, if they're lucky, Australia or Canada. The demographic and migratory trends that have seen dramatic changes in the ethnic composition of many urban districts have reverberations across Europe. We see people move literally in all directions. British entrepreneurs and pensioners may move to Spanish, Portuguese or Bulgarian tourist resorts, while millions of Eastern and Southern Europeans have escaped high unemployment to compete in the Northern Europe's booming service sector, but now find themselves displaced by new migratory waves from further afield. Likewise the indigenous middle classes have tended to move away from cities to suburban retreats and this occurs as much in Sweden or Belgium as it does in England and parts of Scotland.
The real irony in this whole Brexit debate is that other Europeans want to thwart the Brussels behemoth just as much as we do. Everywhere grassroots movements from Beppe Grillo's Movimento 5 Stelle (5 Star Movement) in Italy, Podemos in Spain, AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) in Germany and most notoriously Marie Le Pen's Front National want to wrest power from a centralising superstate. While millions of Eastern Europeans took advantage of job opportunities in wealthier European countries, they have not been so keen to accept their share of recent non-European migrants and refugees. Most Europeans would be happy with a looser community of nation states with separate currencies, protected labour markets, but largely tariff-free trade. We need to cooperate on common environmental and security concerns, scientific research, cultural and educational exchanges. We just do not need an all-powerful superstate that suppresses traditional national and regional identities and exacerbates economic divides between rich and poorer regions by imposing one-size fits all monetary policies on everyone. Europeans are not North Americans. We value our national identities and let's unite to build a different kind of European Community with a fraction of the budget of the former EU. We do not want to see the return of yesteryear's national rivalries or national despotisms, but a mosaic of peace-loving independent countries each doing things in slightly different ways. Brexit is probably the quickest way to achieve this as it would prompt renegotiations and embolden EU-sceptic organisations across Europe to challenge Brussels' hegemony. However, even a narrow Remain win would send a clear signal people want the levers of power to be much closer to home. Sadly in the wake of the murder of Jo Cox MP, I doubt the leave side can win, except by the narrowest margins. A more probably outcome will be 55% for Remain on a lower turnout as many reluctant Brexiters will be burdened by guilt for the crazy actions of one mentally deranged loner.
However, even with a comfortable victory for the Remain side, the fundamental weaknesses of the EU project will not go away. The Euro is unlikely to survive the bankruptcy of the Italian state or ten more years of mass migrations from North Africa and Middle East. The question is whether we could build a pan-European movement to dismantle the EU project peacefully and democratically or if it's too late and we let Europe descend into civil war between rival native and migrant communities when the next global banking crisis comes?